“I was a rocket scientist,” Mr. Shi tells the passenger next to him on the plane from Beijing to the U.S. But even in his well-practiced English, he couldn’t know the nuances of the term in everyday American conversation — how it “doesn’t take a rocket scientist” to figure out why the daughter he is coming all this way to see will hardly be talking to him. Nonetheless it does take us all of the 83 minutes of this seemingly bare-bones parlor drama to get the picture ourselves. Master minimalist Wayne Wang has crafted another of his signature Chinese puzzles, this time showing us little by little why it can take A Thousand Years of Good Prayers for two people to truly communicate.
Mr. Shi’s grown daughter, Yilan, is recently divorced, and himself a widower, he has arrived to put her life back together — or at least to “put his foot in it,” but again, he has yet to learn what this means. Strange as he finds life to be in this neighborhood of America’s heartland where the man over the fence practices his golf putts and the girl next door sunbathes the day away by the pool, people are friendly enough, in particular a woman his age whom he meets on the park bench each day. He calls her “Madam” since, being from Iran and speaking as little English as he does, she is a bit reserved in introducing herself. Yet somehow a meaningful acquaintance transpires between them. Haltingly and often humorously, they “talk” — in fact, it’s all they do, and they do it very nicely, at that, often he in Mandarin and she in Farsi, but happily enough so that Mr. Shi feels all the more left out of his daughter’s life.
Out of fatherly duty, he tells himself, he prepares an ample Chinese banquet for her each evening, each meal with a bigger dose of questions; and this same duty calls upon him to pry into her private life while she’s away at work. One night she stays out, and when a man drops her off the next morning, Mr. Shi gets a whiff of a lover’s spat. The man has an accent, and Mr. Shi connects it to the lacquered Russian dolls he found on his daughter’s desk, each one hidden inside the other. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers peels away the stories tucked inside generations of families, each with its protective shell of denial but also dignity. The tacit lives of this father and daughter envelope their suspicions of each other, and as they come to light, we see that Mr. Shi and Yilan may be more alike than different.
Thanks to Wang and screenwriter Yiyun Li, who adapted the script from her marvelous short story of the same title, this very contemporary scenario is as tight with history as water to a duck’s back, and in Mr. Shi’s generation, that “Peking duck” would be the Cultural Revolution. Without a single flashback, Wang shows the waves it made for a little girl, Yilan, who modeled her social and emotional identity on a father who longed to express himself — and did so — for a moment.
To this effect the film is striking in its delicate balance of presence and absence, a legacy of Chinese philosophy that Wang has long employed and that he also has most likely noted in his predecessor, YasujirÅ Ozu, who is as legendary for his stylistic innovations as for his luminous portraits of women in family life. Just as Ozu extended his frame with distant sounds and objects that “spoke a thousand words,” Wang and Li lend poignancy to Mr. Shi’s wife, to Madam’s daughter, and even to the Russian’s wife and daughter, though these women remain off-screen. The ambient domestic sounds that are not really heard but overheard from the neighbors’ activities (the vacuum cleaner running upstairs, the child practicing the piano, the muffled conversations and mild flirtations) and even Yilan’s own radio or telephone talks from behind a closed door create a hollowed-out intimacy that is chilling. As everyone knows, dialogue should be in-the-moment, not lived in the past. “Women are like lychees and go bad easily,” Yilan (Faye Yu) taunts her father (impressively played by Henry O), packing wry irony into the old Chinese saying. Wang has a way of shoring up the women from the ellipses of these shared and not-so-shared lives.
Likewise, a symmetry that might bring harmony to a family dyad instead plays out in the compartmentalized visual scheme of the film’s architectural spaces, peopled as they are with odd guests such as the pair of Mormons who work their way into Mr. Shi’s living room with their synchronized body language to plant the words of Prophet Joseph Smith beside those of Chairman Mao in their face-to-face with Mr. Shi over the coffee table, or the neighbor who knew where his children were because he’d been in the CIA, although all parents can do is worry and hope.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is about detachment and loss, but it is also about resilience and connection. Wang uses time in his film as both a theme and a vehicle. Quiet reflection — slow and sufficient — can facilitate expression. “Cicadas sleep underground seventeen years and then come up and sing.”
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