Two Wayne Wang Films Faces of China By Wendy Ide

in 55th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Wendy Ide

It seems a long time since Wayne Wang was one of the key figures in American independent cinema; and longer still since his films have looked to the culture of his birth country China for inspiration. After a stint as a moderately successful journeyman director in Hollywood (Maid in Manhattan, Last Holiday), the two sister films which screened at the San Sebastian Film Festival could be said to represent a coming home for the director, both spiritually and creatively.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which screened in competition, and the edgier, ultra-low budget The Princess of Nebraska, showed as a special screening in the Zabaltegi section, are both adapted from short stories by US-based Chinese novelist Yiyun Li. Between them, they offer persuasive portraits of three generations of China brought sharply into focus by the fact that all of the individuals are migrants, transposed to a culture far from their own.

The more immediately accessible of the two films is A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which won both the Golden Shell for best film and the Silver Shell for best actor (awarded to star Henry O). An amusing, wry meditation on the communication breakdown between a Westernized daughter and the father who visits her from Beijing, the picture combines a leisurely, almost meditative pace with infectious flashes of broad comedy. Compact in scope but universal in its themes, the story rests on the shoulders of Henry O, whose expressively physical performance earns most of the laughs, and of Faye Yu who, as the increasingly reticent, emotionally absent daughter, has the more challenging role. Rounding out the cast is veteran Iranian actress Vida Ghahremani, a movie star prior to the revolution who subsequently immigrated to the US. Her scenes with O — stumbling conversations between two strangers with no shared language — are among the most affecting in the film.

O’s Mr. Shi is a man at sea in his daughter’s new life. He prowls her apartment while she is at work, searching for clues to illuminate this strange, lonely life she has chosen for herself. He buys her time with elaborately prepared Chinese meals then bluntly demands answers. She sinks a little lower into her chair and plots a cinema visit that will take her out of the apartment. He can be certain she’s unhappy but is at a loss to know what to do about it. The confusion and frustration spills out during his daily chats with Madame (Ghahremani).

Shot on high def, but with the look of 35mm, it’s a handsome film. Wang uses the visual motif of placing his characters in boxes, often separated by walls within the frame, to emphasize their isolation. It’s an effective device. Rarely has communication failure been explored with such cinematic eloquence.

The Princess of Nebraska employs the gadgets and technology that form a vital part of the language of a younger generation. Covering a day in the life of Sasha (Li Ling), a young Chinese woman studying in the US who has come to San Francisco with the loosely formed plan of getting an abortion, the film is a collage of mobile phone camera images and digital snapshots.

Sasha represents a new breed of Chinese woman, one who knows more about Paris Hilton than she does about the Cultural Revolution, and who, like her idol, believes that life is best lived in front of a camera. Raised against the backdrop of Chinese capitalism, Sasha and her generation are all too aware of their own value as commodities. She’s not the most sympathetic of characters, but, as the day draws to a close, we sense a new maturity in this child-woman. The Princess of Nebraska works independently of its sister movie, but, it should be noted, it’s probably more rewarding to watch it in conjunction with its more mature and satisfying companion piece.

So what is the picture of Chinese society we get from these two films? A country that has evolved at such a rate that different generations find each other practically unknowable; a society in which history is stifled by a government that discourages discussion; a people who are living in isolation, unmoored from their past and from the generations to come. Is dialogue possible? Perhaps. The daughter explains to Mr. Shi: “If you grew up in a language that you never used to express your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language. It makes you a new person.”