Feihong Yu and Henry O in Wayne Wang’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
(photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
On the surface, director Wayne Wang’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a simple story about an elderly father who comes from China to America to help his adult daughter through a divorce. Underneath, it’s a bit more complicated. Having not seen his daughter in 12 years, Mr. Shi is an estranged father in a strange land. Nevertheless, he’s eager to make up for not having been the best parent. For her part, his daughter Yilan has been largely Americanized and only endures his meddling because of an obligation rooted in the strong Chinese concept of family. The two might not understand each other, but as secrets are revealed, they find out they might have more in common than they think.
From a screenplay by Li Yiyun based on her short story, this is a character drama about generational and cultural conflict. There is also a kind of language barrier as Yilan explains that it’s easier for her to express herself in English because she never learned how in Chinese. The result is that there aren’t a lot of narrative fireworks. This is a quiet, thoughtful, character driven film where as much happens in silence as in conversation between characters.
As such a subtle film, the success of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers rests almost entirely on the performances, particularly that of Henry O as Mr. Shi, the character at the true center of the film and the one who has the most pronounced character arc. He is sad-faced and fragile looking, but determined and openly curious about the world he finds himself in. He’s pushy with his daughter, though it’s clear his intentions are good even if his methods violate her privacy. O’s performance is key to keeping a potentially irritating character likeable.
If Mr. Shi is the most interesting character, the peripheral American characters are less successful. At first they seem like cartoons or stereotypes, and they are, but it’s important to remember everything is portrayed as it’s seen through Mr. Shi’s eyes. The characters aren’t realistic, but exaggerated to show how they appear to an outsider. There’s a funny scene where he tries to have a conversation with an odd but friendly neighbor. On top of the language barrier, the modest and old-fashioned Mr. Shi remains turned away from the woman while he talks to her because she’s only wearing a bikini.
If the film has a flaw it might be that, like Mr. Shi, it is itself a bit too modest. Lacking the rapid edits and hyperactive camerawork used to punch up so many films, A Thousand Years does little to beg for your attention and impatient viewers might give up on it. That would be a shame because it is not without its rewards. It offers a unique look at a parent/child relationship magnified by cultural misunderstandings and it’s a refreshing return to the kind of mood and character based indie drama with which Wang launched his career.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. USA 2007 (released in 2008). Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Li Yiyun from her short story. Cinematography by Patrick Lindenmaier. Edited by Deirdre Slevin. Starring Henry O, Faye Yue, Vida Ghahremani and Pasha D. Lychnikoff. 1 hour 23 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 3.5 stars (out of 5)