Friday, September 19, 2008

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers Starts Today

Imagine you just divorced your husband when your estranged father announces he is visiting you help straighten everything out. Oh, the joy. Such is the parental visit Yilan must endure in Wayne Wang’s quiet but emotionally heavy A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (trailer here), opening in New York today.

The fissures between Yilan and her father Mr. Shi are not just generational, but also geographic and cultural. He has traveled from mainland China, where he may just be the last surviving true-believing Communist. Conversely, Yilan has acclimated to the lifestyle of suburban (or exurban) America, now more comfortable expressing herself in English than Chinese.

Over the years a significant chasm has opened up between father and daughter, with roots in Mr. Shi’s past that Yilan never fully understood. Though ostensibly polite, she did not want him to come and withdraws further and further the longer he persists in staying. Confused by her cold response, Mr. Shi finds himself increasingly alienated in a strange country, only able to forge a human connection with Madame, a gregarious Iranian matriarch he often encounters at a nearby park.

Madame emigrated following the Iranian Revolution, to escape the repression which followed. Mr. Shi, a loyal servant in Mao’s revolution, now finds himself in America only out of a sense of familial duty. Neither has a strong command of English, yet they successfully communicate almost telepathically, using fragments of three dissimilar languages.

Something happened in the Cultural Revolution that derailed Mr. Shi’s life. Yet like an excommunicated sinner, he holds onto his love for his faith. Thousand subtly shows the continuing influence of seemingly far-removed tumultuous historical events on its characters, but not at the expense of its central family drama.

Based on a short story by Yiyun Li, featuring just four characters with significant dialogue, Thousand is uncompromisingly intimate. Yet, it never seems stagey thanks to Patrick Lindenmaier’s cinematography. Wang takes his exquisite time telling that story, but there are real emotional payoffs. Henry O is quite touching as Mr. Shi and Faye Yu gives a frankly remarkable performance as Yilan, expressing the quiet tragedies of life's bitter disappointments.

Thousand is an elegantly thoughtful film that lingers in your consciousness long after screening. It is part of a one-two punch coming from director Wang, author Li, and the distributor. While Thousand opens today at the Lincoln Plaza in New York, Princess of Nebraska (trailer here) debuts on youtube’s screening room about a month from now on October 17th. Having made the festival circuit, Nebraska has legitimate arthouse credentials, so it will be interesting to see how this distribution experiment works. As for Thousand, it might not be appreciated by those with limited attention spans, but it is an understated and rewarding film, that is definitely recommended.