Wayne Wang directed this subdued drama about a Chinese widower and his daughter from a screenplay Yiyun Lin translated from one of her own short stories. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is so compressed, one doesn’t emerge feeling a millennium has transpired. The film frustratingly abbreviates profundities about intergenerational conflict, thus trapping the two souls stuck in Spokane as if under glass. Sincere and dignified to a fault, it feels like a shrink-wrapped version of a more penetrating study. While the film hopes to be lauded as well observed, it lacks sufficient incident or a satisfying dramatic arc and tells us far more than it shows us. The effect on Wang’s reputation is a draw—and in the hands of a less experienced filmmaker, one can imagine something completely soporific—but even positive word of mouth by those who connect with the piece is unlikely to translate into significant ticket sales.
The most affecting sign of their strained relationship is noticeable in the first scene when Yilan (Faye Yu), probably in her early 30s, picks up her father (Henry O), a widower and retired rocket scientist, at the airport. They haven’t seen each other for 12 years, yet don’t embrace; they don’t touch at all. Mr. Shi compliments Yilan on how young she looks, but we discover he’s never been especially attentive, and they’ve never been close. He has flown in from Beijing to help her “recover” from a divorce and to avoid further shame by finding her a good second husband. Though not openly disrespectful, Yilan is cold, quietly bristling at his attempts to be supportive, efforts that are well intended but also selfish and permeated by his traditional—patriarchal and misogynistic—worldview. A doddering nag and busybody, he hangs out in her sedate, featureless condo complex while she’s at work. Worried about her nutrition, he buys a wok and prepares large meals; he grills her about her social life and makes it clear he wants to be a grandfather. After an unspecified period spent dancing around one another, they have it out and divulge secrets that belatedly peak our curiosity. Just when friction starts to be generated, the often abruptly episodic picture winds down.
The title comes from a Chinese proverb about the difficulty of sustaining long-term romantic relationships—peaceful cohabitation—that applies to familial bonds as well. Failing to communicate and ignoring the other’s emotional needs is damaging no matter the circumstances or underlying reasons. Yilan makes a minimal effort to get closer to her father out of resentment and fear. Regarding his own failures, he admits to having been a bad father and explains: “I don’t like to talk about bad things.” They are both wearing masks, and the movie practically seems enamored of their impasse and her unhappiness and torpor in particular. Yilan is not a sympathetic character, and Faye Yu’s clenched performance isn’t entirely to blame. We spend so much time watching him that her perspective isn’t fairly represented. She does smile—only once and very late in the game. Shi tries too hard and is downright gregarious regarding trivial matters and toward strangers. Turns out, he’s a chick magnet: the ladies love Mr. Shi. Imagine how popular he’d be if he knew more than a few words of English! Alas, the friendship he forms with an Iranian woman (Vida Ghahremani) he meets in the park is difficult to buy. Neither speaks English well, and their short scenes conversing in fractured English are more absurd and awkward than touching. Wang and Lin answer this critic’s prayers by not going too far down the sentimental path of a senior fling, platonic or otherwise.
Wang is working in Joy Luck Club mode and closer to his culturally provocative early film—with lighter, off-the-wall semi-satirical moments coming from Mr. Shi’s encounters with a handful of eccentric Americans. Still, although the tone is more serious than his recent mainstream efforts like Maid in Manhattan and Because of Winn-Dixie, the result isn’t all that more substantial. It’s to Wang’s credit that A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is spare and swift enough to keep your attention, but it walks too fine a line between understatedly wise and somberly tepid.
Cast: Henry O, Faye Yu, Vida Ghahremani and Pasha Lychnikoff
Director: Wayne Wang
Screenwriter: Yiyun Li
Producers: Yukie Kito, Rich Cowan and Wayne Wang
Genre: Drama; Mandarin-, English- and Farsi-language, subtitled
Running time: 83 min.
Release date: September 19 NY