Kids today, with their video-phones and text-messaging. Life was not so easy for their elders, which for those in China often included periods of required marching and waving around little red books. Such generational divides lie at the center of the two companion films directed by Wayne Wang, best known for The Joy Luck Club and Smoke. The first, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a quietly elegant picture that lingers in the consciousness long after screening, is currently in theatrical release. The second, The Princess of Nebraska (trailer here, film here), is an okay film, currently available to viewers at the click of a mouse, free of charge at youtube’s Screening Room.
Princess and Prayers share similar themes, with both subtly hinting at the profound and continuing disruptions caused by the Chinese Cultural Revolution in its characters lives. However, where the characters of Prayers were mature and painfully self-aware, those of Princess are young, and rather shallow and self-absorbed, particularly the main character Sasha, but in her defense, that might be changing.
As Princess opens, Sasha arrives in the Bay Area to have an abortion. An international student in Nebraska, she was impregnated while still in China by Yang, a star in the Beijing Opera. Though we never see or hear him in the film, it quickly becomes clear how narcissistic and self-centered he must be. Evidently, bisexual as well, since it will be Boshen, his former American lover, picking up the tabs.
Sasha is young and understandably confused. After ditching Boshen at a dreary dinner party, she starts walking the seedy streets of San Francisco, in search of enlightenment, or for lack of a better idea. Eventually, she meets X, a bar hostess, whom she accompanies on a hospitality gig that approaches geisha (oiran to be more accurate) territory. Eventually, she and X wind up in bed together, as Sasha’s phone records the proceedings, presumably to be sent to Yang in hope of generating a reaction, though none is forthcoming. (The use of the videophone perspective is a frequent motif, which honestly feels clichéd by now.) After her nocturnal detour, Sasha makes her appointment at the health clinic, where she meets probably the most frank and even-handed abortion counselor in the world, Claire, a brief part memorably played by Emily Beck.
Ultimately, Princess ends on an ambiguous note. This is not Bella or even Juno (far from it). However, Sasha seems to come to the realization that her actions have consequences and moral implications, which is frankly an unusual place for a film to conclude. Ever so obliquely, this message is reinforced by the references to the Cultural Revolution, from an expat bartender, and X, as she relates her mother’s experiences in the film’s other particularly strong scene. As in Prayers, we ever so discretely see how the chaos of the past continues to influence the present. In a more macro sense, Sasha and her friends are growing up largely without an appreciation for tradition, because much of their cultural heritage was destroyed by the Cultural Revolution.
Unfortunately, there is also a lot of aimlessness in the relatively brief Princess (even at an eighty minute running time). In terms of writing and acting, Prayers is the far superior film, so it makes sense it would be the one to receive theatrical distribution and Princess would get the youtube premiere. Still, it is at times an interesting film, and Pamelyn Chee deserves attention for her performance as X. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Richard Wong, Princess is a finely crafted film that has screened at legitimate film festivals. For free on youtube, it is certainly of an entirely different magnitude than most of the home-movies of people slandering politicians or falling off ladders that you typically find on the site.