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Most powerful when resisting oversimplification of a father-daughter relationship, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers falters with its caricatures of American suburbia.
On Wayne Wang's "early brilliance," Slate writer Hua Hsu wrote of Wang's Chan is Missing: "It celebrated and reveled in the profound shapelessness of identity. Identity is something communities imagine together... [Chan] certainly feels more truthful in its ambiguity."
Wang's latest film, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, finds its niche in a new theme -- parents and children -- but a lot of what Hsu noticed of Wang twenty-six years ago still applies, albeit to a calmer and more modest degree.
His observation that Wang brushed closer to truth through ambiguity especially holds up. His conclusions in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers seem temporary and open-ended, and that's in part what makes this film a provocative and meditative experience. He doesn't try to encompass his characters in one ideology or definition by, say, placing immigrants and second generation Americans in the categories of acculturation ("good") or assimilation ("bad") -- because there is so much more is at work beyond terms. Experience is best represented by allowing room for possibility and interpretation, even if the film is dedicated to a particular moral or ideology.
In this way, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers succeeds, for the most part. Where it works best is in the way that it handles its conclusion, making it void of any obvious suggestions as to how anything is resolved. The goal of the story and motivation for the protagonist, Beijing native Mr. Shi, is simply for him to establish a connection with his Chinese American daughter, Yilan. This is an indistinct mission that would require two very different perspectives of the world to reconcile with each other. For Yilan, her father may represent the Cultural Revolution and the censorship of expression she so strongly associates with the Mandarin language and her childhood. And, as a father, he wants her to meet certain expectations, the "ideal" ideals of a Chinese woman: what she should do, be, and become. His "True Marxism" contradicts her American Capitalistic lifestyle.
In a pivotal scene, Yilan overhears one of her father's confessional prayers. The very next thing we see, without transition, is them connecting over a mundane conversation on a bench. Nothing much has been said or worked out, yet it is the most realistic moment in the film. We assume this happens because she has discovered, in overhearing him, that he isn't a full representation of Communist China and the bad things she associates with it. She has, in a sense, discovered the depth and shapelessness of his identity. But again, nothing is said, and the artists' intentions are not clear. Some may not appreciate the abruptness of the ending or the feeling of irresolution after the movie is over, yet the resolution they come to, irresolute as it is, is a statement itself to the utter ambiguity in real relationships, the sheer difficulty in penetrating the black box of another person's heart and mind.
Wang has abstained from the typical cinematic desire to arrive at some revealing and morally conclusive conclusion, one that would typically explain and frame our experiences and inspire us to live "better" lives. It's a hard desire to resist in any medium of storytelling, but I applaud the film for this. To unquestioningly settle on something as the answer to an issue, especially a huge and varied issue such as immigration, can be an addictive crutch.
Yilan buys her father airplane tickets and suggests he tour America, since that is why he came. He replies that, no, he came "to see the America of my daughter," implying that he looks out his bus window not out of curiosity for American culture, but to look for a quick answer that will help him better understand the estranged daughter he has come to connect with. His direct mission is almost a contradiction to the ambiguousness of the film; he wants to reach an assessment about her and make her better. His attempt to define her American lifestyle, in effect, solidifies and simplifies that lifestyle and thus also the American identity. The film, like Mr. Shi, also revolves around Yilan, trying to crack the lonely mysteries of her life by seeming to point, accusingly, at suburban America.
Where the film falters was its depiction of America. Nuance is lost in this portion of the film. The film employs caricatures to depict the America that Mr. Shi explores, and this is the flattest aspect of the film. On one hand, it's possible that this dumbing down and flattening of America is Wang's (or screenwriter Yiyun Li's) intention, but ultimately I found its oversimplification problematic.
Personally, it annoyed me, because the film's own tour of America seems to be as conclusive as Mr. Shi's. I felt like a native riding a tour bus in my own city, listening to the opinionated things that the tour guide with Marxist sunglasses was saying about all the things I find so familiar and common place. It's not that I didn't admire his observations and mostly agree with what he said, but I found issue with the overly definitive answers used to feed the outsider's curiosities. Next to Wang's brilliant "shapeless identity" is this nasty, two-dimensional capitalistic American Identity: the assumption that everyone focuses on objects that have no practical value or aren't used, and that everyone pours their time into those objects instead of into deepening relationships with other people.
There are numerous examples of this. The apartment pool is large but never in use, despite the manager's maintenance. A sprightly blonde girl sunbathes there every day (calling to mind how certain styles of the human body are made into products) and complains of her unemployment. Mr. Shi, while keeping his eyes off her, asks her why she is always at the pool if she's looking for employment. He, the true Communist, sees her body as personal and private, while she, perhaps, sees "it" as a object for attraction. Later, a security guard at the university library his daughter works at refuses the pidgen-Englished old Mr. Shi access, as if he were some outcast. "I'm very sorry," he apologizes, "but only those belonging to the university may use these facilities." Mr. Shi insists that he is only there to see his daughter, but to no effect. The guard lets himself be defined by his job, not his reason, and the only glimpse of his individuality is his apology.
What seems to be Li's and/or Wang's target is America's consumer culture: how eventually people themselves are defined as objects, by their job, color of skin, and dress, etc. This would be a decent critique if only it weren't so unambiguous. Perhaps the film's representation of suburbia is so unambiguous because suburbia, as a culture, doesn't allow for ambiguity.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers isn't on the scale of its predecessors -- Dim Sum and Chan -- but I'm not sure that it intended itself to be. Like Mr. Shi, it is quiet, modest, and self-assured. Like Mr. Shi's beliefs in cultural and gender traditions, the film sometimes seems too fixed and one-sided, but then it sometimes surprises you with its wisdom. When you leave the theater, you feel as if you've been given a gift, an admission that, no, life isn't really like it is on the silver screen, but we've tried our best to represent it as honestly as possible. You don't feel like you've been manipulated by mainstream moralities. The possibility of disappointment, really, lies in whether you are willing to buy into its adoration for the unknown. We watch as the film attempts to shape life while admitting that, maybe, life is shapeless.
Date Posted: 9/19/2008