Since virtually inventing Asian-American cinema in 1982 with his film “Chan Is Missing,” Wayne Wang has built a curiously Frankensteinian body of work, mixing indie and commercial productions and spanning subjects as diverse as a lazy Brooklyn afternoon and the last days of pre-handover Hong Kong. Though films like “Eat a Bowl of Tea” and “The Joy Luck Club” defined his early career, Wang has, like Taiwanese contemporary Ang Lee, consciously evaded being pigeonholed as an Asian-American filmmaker, pursuing diverse projects.
In the mid-Nineties, his two concurrent collaborations with Paul Auster, “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face,” aligned his sensibility squarely with that of American indie luminaries like Jim Jarmusch and the Weinsteins; then, in seemingly another turnabout, he spent the next decade making an array of varied, if sometimes head-scratching commercial features: the Susan Sarandon–Natalie Portman mother-daughter film “Anywhere But Here“; the J.Lo–Ralph Fiennes rom-com “Maid in Manhattan“; the Queen Latifah terminal-illness movie “Last Holiday“; and “Because of Winn-Dixie.”
If these latter projects strike fans of his more independent fare as crass commercialism, Wang’s two new films – “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and “The Princess of Nebraska,” both adaptations of short stories by Yiyun Li — suggest not only a return to form but also the revival of an old theme from his early Asian-American dramedies: the different ways that certain generations translate and adapt their cultural heritage.
With minute simplicity, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” follows Mr. Shi (an achingly sympathetic Henry O) from Beijing to visit his daughter Yilan in Spokane, WA, where she works in the law library at Gonzaga University. America is rendered somewhat anonymous by the film — all strip malls and signs for Hong Kong Express takeouts and roadside evangelists with sandwich boards that read, “Got Jesus?” — and to Mr. Shi, it’s a fascinating, alien environment from which he can absorb much (and hone his English language skills). But Wang’s film makes it foreign to us, as well: amid the banal uniformity of Yilan’s condo complex, Mr. Shi encounters a blonde necrologist sunbathing in her bikini, the incessant sound of cicadas, a neighbor golfing on the manicured confines of his lawn, and a pair of friendly door-to-door Mormons (in a scene that dovetails curiously with Gus Van Sant‘s “Last Days“).
What seems most alien to Mr. Shi, however, is Yilan’s behavior, her reticence in talking to or even welcoming her father’s visit, and her sudden, spontaneous disappearances. At first, she seems to be merely annoyed with her fussy, nosy old man, sneaking off to the movies to merely avoid his elaborately cooked meals and old-world bromides. But Wang deftly interleaves the spare narrative with off-hand details that reveal a hidden turmoil that Yilan refuses to vocalize. Puzzled by his daughter’s behavior in this strange, new world, so friendly and yet so maddeningly tidy, Mr. Shi seeks advice and comfort from a stranger at the nearby park, an elder Iranian woman with whom he can barely communicate.
“A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” thematically recalls the works of Ozu, though it’s nowhere near as fastidious or formal as the Japanese director’s work. Throughout the film, Wang’s style is restrained to almost nil, but as in “The Visitor” (and, to an extent, Jim Jarmusch‘s “Broken Flowers“), it’s refreshing to see a film so aesthetically chaste, one that always veers away from, rather than courts, the melodramatic, the emotionally pummeling, or even the socially urgent. Wang’s new film is by no means for everyone — probably not even for this reviewer — but nor does it surrender to obvious fish-out-water laughs or heartstring manipulation.