Wong Kar-wai's enthralling digital restoration of his 1994 film Ashes of Time revitalizes the cinematic fragments of love, desire, rejection and exile.
To his fans, Yasujiro Ozu is not a mere artist, but a friend with whom you've shared a few Sapparos and who makes you feel you've known Japanese all your life. Thus these notes are written out of a familiarity and kinship, to a good friend in a neighboring city...
Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Fresh air does Wayne Wang well in his patient, quiet new film A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.
There is a charming story that accompanies this film. Wayne Wang was in the middle of shooting one of his Hollywood films, Last Holiday, with Queen Latifah, which was filmed somewhere in the Swiss Alps. Production came to a halt when he contracted a serious bout of pneumonia. When the studio doctor went to visit him, he told Wang that one of the reasons that he may have become so ill was his shortened breathing. Rather than taking fuller, deeper breaths, Wang had developed the habit of inhaling rapidly, like he was gasping for air. Afterwards, he went back into production and became more conscious of the way he would breathe.
But this anecdote has more meaning for Wang -- it describes his film work as well. He notes that working on his recent Hollywood films is like having one's breath constricted. Then, to look at his newest film A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is to look at his departure from action and speed; it is a film of breathing spaces. From the very start it takes its time.
The opening shot of the film is simple: a woman standing alone in an airport waiting for someone to arrive. She stands there politely with her hands crossed in front of her demurely. The camera never wavers or leaves her -- it is just an image of waiting. And her father arrives. This moment carries forth the very nature of this film, a sensitive politesse of emptied moments that strips the dramatic image to its bare essentials, until the film itself resembles a bare stage. Who else does one know that constantly simplifies his images until everything becomes separable atoms? It is, of course, Ozu that one finds with A Thousand Years. One needs only to look at the lobby poster that accompanies this film to tag Ozu as a source, with the father and daughter, their eyes looking upon the bayside, their position on the bench with their backs to us like Miles Davis playing his fractured jazz, and most of all that skewed angle that utters once more the words, Tokyo Story. But to gesture to the fact that Wang constantly finger-points Ozu as a source is to state the obvious. He's been working with quotations ever since Dim Sum.
Wang is not a plagiarist. To say that he makes reprinted lithographs of Ozu would be to obscure the facts -- Ozu made Japanese films about the Japanese. Wang makes Japanese films about the Chinese (it's more complicated than this, of course). Wang himself has mentioned the fact that he has drawn his true education from the Japanese films he saw at the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley, that the Japanese were much clearer and more developed in their aesthetic than the early Chinese films he had seen. Yet at the heart of his films, what resonates more truly is Wang's attention to the question of the Chinese, a notion ever unresolved and impinged upon with an overhanging question mark. He's jabbed at Chinese from all angles -- from the populace-monumental (Joy Luck Club), to the obscure-subterranean (Chan Is Missing), and the bizarre-carnival (Life is Cheap...But Toilet Paper is Expensive), and he surfaces with still more to explore.
With A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Wang adapts literature into film -- Thousand Years and Princess of Nebraska form a diptych that he's culled from a collection of short stories by Yiyun Li. Yet there is something so familiar to Li's writing that fits perfectly with Wang's own work. Perhaps what attracts Wang to Li's writing is that all of her writing emerges from the place of the outsider peering onto the inside. Li, herself, never intended to write fiction professionally. She only discovered her voice for writing while she was studying for her Ph.D. in immunology at the University of Iowa. Li would later write, "For me...writing in English is the most liberating experience. In English, I am free to express things that I would have consciously censored -- both out of political pressure and cultural pressure -- had I been writing in Chinese." Then Li gracefully pairs with Wang. They both straddle that hyphen that forcibly yolks that phrase, Chinese-American. For both of these artists, the margin is less a place of cramped solitude, but more of a place that distributes vigorous creativities.
Yet if the playwright is content, it is certain that his characters languish. In A Thousand Years, all the characters stand upon the outside of something, desiring all the time to stand just a little bit closer. An elderly Chinese Mr. Shi flies in from the Mainland to live briefly with his daughter in a small quiet town in the Midwest. She's been recently divorced, and Mr. Shi does everything he can to find his way back into his daughter's life. He's played the absent father for so many years that he thinks his daughter is still five years old, in that he tries to nurse her emotions with a buffet of Chinese dishes, by pushing meat into her rice bowl, and nervously pacing at the doorstep when she doesn't return home. What Mr. Shi fails to understand though is that she is an American creature with American habits. She speaks more fluently in English, backsteps upon any outward signs of Chineseness, and itches badly under parental bossiness -- she's past her thirties!
Yet, the beauty of the film is that it is truly simple. It has the clarity of exposition like a single stroke hieroglyph. At once it is simple but beguiling, for there are no other words around it to clutter its own pronunciation or make situations concrete. It is simple in the sense that the film seems to be so transparent as a series of forced quietness and conversation between a resolute father and daughter. But this shallowness is an illusion and the film begins to accrue in its tension and its secrets, and then there is a glimpse of a drama, and only a glimpse. The greatest quality of this film is that Wang never intensifies the emotions of his melodrama towards the stature of a Wagner. Not at all. Wang would prefer to sing the entire last act sotto voce. There's that sense of lightness when Wang naturally nods to Ozu in a parting image: a girl types at her desk, hears the sound of a train, pauses to think of her father, resumes typing. Wang works with an economy of emotions.
But the film is not at all perfect. At times Mr. Shi's wanderings through suburbia are merely distracting and petty, the daughter's own love life seems abrupt, and the side story of the Iranian madame is maudlin sweet. These are minor points, because these detours are the very eccentricities that one will be hard-pressed to find in many a major motion picture. A Thousand Years is a good film. A good film in the sense that Woody Allen has made a good film. A good film in the sense that it hasn't been overly belabored. Good in the sense that one walks away from the film with the limpidity of precise storytelling. Because Wayne Wang applies the brakes to any movement that seems to accelerate too fast, the film has a calmer melody and rhythm. Like a yoga instructor, the film invokes us to breathe in deeply. Meditate. Fill the lungs. Breathe out.
Date Posted: 9/19/2008