After directing nineteen feature films ranging from the microbudget indies (Chan is Missing, Smoke) to G-rated family fare (Because of Winn-Dixie, Anywhere But Here) to star vehicles (Maid in Manhattan, the Last Holiday) director Wayne Wang is trying something new. He's wiped his own slate clean and made what feels like (in the best and worst ways) a debut into middle age.
In keeping with this new sense of adventure, in the coming weeks Wang will unveil two new features: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Princess of Nebraska. A new hybrid theatrical/online strategy, these projects are part of an experiment spearheaded by Magnolia Films, YouTube, Landmark Cinemas and Cinetic Media.
Both films are based on short stories by Yiyun Li, whose work often focuses on generational and culture clashes in Asian families sharing many themes with the films of Yasujiro Ozu, a clear inspiration to Wang.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers opens with Yilan, a young woman picking up her father (only identified as Mr. Shi) at the airport his first visit to the States from China. Their greeting is polite but chilly, after a 12-year estrangement following his infidelity they're virtual strangers for whom the other has become a distant obligation. She's recently divorced and her father's arrival only serves to remind her of what she has not accomplished at this stage of her life. Mr. Shi, an avowed supporter of Mao Zedong is looking back on his own choices to provide for his family and work on China's first rocket program as going wholly unappreciated by his increasingly Americanized daughter.
Rather than taking the more traditional Sundance-ish route and focusing on how their dysfunction has affected the younger family member, the film centers on the aging father who mixes weary regret with boundless curiosity for the suburban wasteland his daughter resides in. His adventures, snooping and friendships make up the bulk of the film's lean 83-minute runtime. Embracing a Wes Anderson aesthetic and shot on location in Spokane, Washington; the town is portrayed as being like the conformity planet from "A Wrinkle in Time". Inhabited by quirky (if not somewhat shifty) white people and punctuated by meticulously landscaped parks. It's a place where the 1950s, the present and the future all muddle together and having recently returned from a high school reunion in Spokane, it seems like a good fit.
The film is quietly sympathetic to both father and daughter, even as they do passive aggressive and mean-spirited things to each other. Henry O. (who fans of the West Wing will recall an appearance he made in an episode poignantly titled "Shibboleth") makes Mr. Shi resonate as a studious and endearing figure in a film with very little dialogue or plot.
RIYL: Broken Flowers, Persepolis, the Straight Story, the Namesake, the Squid and the Whale.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers opens September 26th at the Clay Theaters in San Francisco. See the trailer here.