A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. 2007. Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Yiyun Li, based on her short story. Produced by Yukie Kito, Rich Cowan, and Wayne Wang. Cinematography by Patrick Lindenmaier. Edited by Deirdre Slevin. Production design by Vincent De Felice. Music by Lesley Barber.
Cast: Faye Yu (Yilan), Henry O (Mr. Shi), Vida Ghahremani (Madam), Pasha Lychnikoff (Boris).
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, based on a short story by Yiyun Li, is one half of a diptych conceived by Wayne Wang as a return to his indie-film roots after a long sojourn making Hollywood studio films. The other film is The Princess of Nebraska, also based on one of Li’s stories. Of the two, Thousand Years is the far more accomplished and satisfying work. Unlike the self-consciously arty strenuousness of Nebraska, Thousand Years derives its affecting quality from its simplicity, economy of storytelling, and a quietly powerful central performance by Henry O as Mr. Shi, an elderly man invited by his daughter Yilan (Faye Yu, also quiet and compelling) for a visit and a tour of the U.S., after twelve years apart from each other. Mr. Shi, a self-described “true believer” in Communism, his posture held aloft by a back brace, comes to live with his daughter in a bland and eerily anonymous suburban community. They have quiet dinners each evening, Mr. Shi clearly wanting more information about how his daughter is doing, and making valiant attempts to reconnect her after his long absence from her life. Yiyun, however, keeps her personal life a firmly closed book, and she seems increasingly annoyed at his intrusiveness. Bored, and with little to do around the home, Mr. Shi wanders around the neighborhood, which leads to a few dryly comic encounters, most notably with a sunbather who eagerly tells him about her passion for forensic science, and an odd visit by a pair of Mormon proselytizers. Mr. Shi tries to reduce the language barrier by jotting down English words and phrases in his book, and in his conversations with others, he freely mixes his native Mandarin with halting English. Mr. Shi soon meets an Iranian woman (Vida Ghahremani), and they begin having daily conversations on a park bench, and even though they speak Mandarin and Farsi with one another, with some English mixed in, they are able to reveal intimate details with their lives that they can with no one else. Mr. Shi eventually confesses to the woman, “I no good father.” As a rocket scientist back in China (a fact he loves to mention to any American he meets), he was wrapped up in his work, and was mostly absent to his own family. The latent resentment of his daughter towards him has clearly never been resolved. In the film’s closing passages, the weight of the secrets and lies told on both sides finally take their toll on the father and daughter, resulting in a cascading rush of revealed (and painful) truth.
This film is a model of elegant simplicity, both in its narrative and visual design. The soullessness and emptiness of the environment depicted in the film, where Mr. Shi, with the weight of personal and national history evident in every gesture and line on his face, is so clearly out of place, is paralleled by the years of silence between father and daughter. The silence and secrets are intertwined with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution in China, a major theme of Yiyun Li’s fiction. The sharp cinematography (by Patrick Lindenmaier) and editing (by Deirdre Slevin) serve to highlight the appealing concision with which Li’s story is rendered (she also penned the screenplay). Henry O, a veteran actor in China and the U.S. whose lengthy resume includes Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, is a remarkable presence, adept at both deadpan comedy and poignant, rueful reflection. (The DVD contains a fascinating interview with Henry O in which he relates his personal experiences and early struggles as an actor during the Cultural Revolution.) Faye Yu (who previously worked with Wang in The Joy Luck Club) is also excellent, conveying Yilan’s sadness in a role that often requires her to express this without dialogue, a task at which she succeeds enormously.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers can be purchased from Amazon. Yiyun Li's original short story can be found in the collection of the same name, also available from Amazon.