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Wayne Wang: Twenty-six years of good movies

Wayne Wang at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

Wayne Wang's other new film, "The Princess of Nebraska," will have its free world premiere on Friday, Oct. 17, on the screening room. Times: Midnight ET, 11 p.m. CT, 10 p.m. MT and 9 p.m. PT.

Wayne Wang has made 18 films since "Chan Is Missing" 1982. I have seen 14 of them, and admired all but one. He's had big box office successes like "The Joy Luck Club," "Maid in Manhattan" and "Last Holiday," and hasn't made a film primarily about Chinese characters since "Chinese Box" (1997). Now he arrives with two mid-length films about changes that set Chinese-Americans apart from their roots.

His sadly observant "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," which opens Friday, Oct 10 at the Landmark Century and is playing around the country, stars Feihong [Faye] Yu of "Joy Luck" as a thoroughly Americanized Chinese-American, and the veteran actor Henry O as her 70ish father, who comes to visit her. They find a cultural divide between them which seems impossible to bridge.

It's the kind of quiet, thoughtful movie that involves an audience by drawing it in, not slamming it with action. The kind of film it's growing harder to find. "I'm sorry that over the last ten years, the kinds of films that the audience likes to watch have changed," Wang told me, "but I will continue to make these films about Chinese- Americans, and in my own way."

Here's the exchange we conducted via the internet:

Roger Ebert: "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" seems so intimate and insightful that even though it is based on writings by Yiyun Li, I assume the film is also inspired by your personal thoughts and observations. True?

Wayne Wang: I identified quite a bit with Yilan, the daughter. I came to the U.S., and like her, learned a new language, a new culture and became a different person. So much so that the conflicts between my father and I grew deeper. When he finally came over to visit me for the first time since I came to the U.S., our dinners together became quite unbearable. I felt I had little in common with my father and that most of my Americanized opinions about life/love/politics were at odds with his. Like in the film, our dinners grew to become silent and filled with unspoken tension, and I always made an excuse to get out of the house immediately afterwards and went to see a movie.

RE: Many contemporary films would view the story from the POV of the daughter, even making the father an object of (affectionate, I hope) humor. You stay with him almost every second. You are not "sorry" for him; you are focused on his implied evaluation of an unfamiliar society.

WW: These days no one will make a film focusing on an older man as the leading character. So I made a conscious decision to focus on Mr. Shi, every frame of the film. It was not easy to convince an investor about that, especially since the character speaks mostly Chinese and had to be subtitled. But Henry O inspired me to be more insistent about this because he brought such an wise yet innocent quality to everyone he encountered, a bit like what the Dalai Lama projects in his personality.

RE: It strikes me that many of the younger Chinese we glimpsed during the Olympics, while certainly not representative of the whole population, would have felt more at home in the U.S. than Mr. Shi did.

WW: The younger Chinese generation who live in the cities of China grew up watching American TV and reading western magazines. And most of them speak pretty good English. Actually, most of Asia is a bit like that. In fact, my other new film "Princess of Nebraska" is very much about this younger generation, and how westernized they are. But the older generation, especially if they come from the outside the cities, are more traditional, non-English speaking and very much like Mr. Shi.

RE: Are the "developed" segments of all nations being shaped by the same consumerist model?

WW: Yes, very much so. I'd say more consumerist than the rest of the world. In China because they had so little for so long, they now want everything. Big labels such as Louie Vuitton, etc., make a good part of their profits from the Chinese market.

RE: I was touched by Mr. Shi's relationship with the Iranian woman on the park bench. From such different cultures, they instinctively share the loss of traditions that would have more valued them.

WW: I love that part too. The funny thing about those scenes is that Henry O is an obsessive actor who plotted out his bad English very precisely. Then Vida (the Iranian actress) came to the set and improvised everything and threw Henry O completely off balance. Luckily Henry O always recovered enough to make the scene work. The end result turned out better because there was a organic unrehearsed energy about them. On a personal level, both of them have gone through deep losses and tragedies, during the Cultural Revolution and the Eight Years War between Iran and Iraq respectively, that their shared loss came through their humor!

RE: Mr. Shi is deeply concerned about his daughter's romantic situation. If she were still in China , I imagine she would feel his concerns more urgently. Has she lost that part of her emotional equipment, or suppressed it?

WW: Recently I invited some women from China the same age as Yilan to one of my private screenings. Afterwards they told me how much they identified With Yilan's character. They told me that during the Cultural Revolution, there were so many lies and betrayals among neighbors, co-workers and within the community that the relationship within families were always based on half truths, denials, and suspicions. These women felt very sympathetic to the daughter and understood her distance towards her father. They felt that she never could communicate with him and never knew what he said was true or not. She grew up isolated from her father and when she moved here she became freer to become independent from that patriarchal control.

RE: An 83 minute film is on the edge of distribution difficulties. My mantra is "no good film is too long, no bad film is short enough." I should modify that with, "all good films are the right length." does the length present distribution challenges to you?

WW: So far it hasn't. These days theaters and distributors don't mind a shorter film as they can have more screenings per day and make more money.

RE: This and your "Princess of Nebraska," which I haven't seen, are your first films in 10 years to concern Chinese characters. Not for one second is that intended as criticism; You must and should make the films you feel moved to make. It is simply an observation.

WW: You should see "Princess of Nebraska." It is a diptych to "Thousand Years." It focuses on the younger generation in China who grew up with little knowledge of the Cultural Revolution and the Tianinman Square Massacres. They hardly have any knowledge of their own past and don't really know themselves other than their urge to make money and consume. Whereas, Yilan from "Thousand Years" is trying to forget her past and move on to a new life. The irony is that she ends up repeating the history of her father... falling into an illicit affair with a married person?

RE: Was it a challenge to juxtapose the different personal styles of the characters Mr. Shi and Yilan?

WW: Not so much their personal styles. But rather working with them to do "less." They both come from a tradition of melodramatic Chinese acting. Henry O on stage and Faye [Feihong Yu] in soap operas. They both felt that they weren't doing enough unless they were acting more dramatically. I told them to understand their character's motivation and simply "be" them!

RE: I heard you felt some kind of epiphany when you discovered Henry O.

WW: I was having a tough time casting his character. Then I met Henry O and heard him talk about all the persecutions he went through during the Cultural Revolutions. I also learned about his personal and emotional dealings with his daughter, who is 40 and unmarried. I knew immediately I had found my man. Then he told me that he's one of the few who dared to threaten Tony Soprano and lived to tell about it! He played the Buddhist priest who sued Tony!

Just one more note: In my first film, "Chan Is Missing" [1982], I quoted a Chinese saying: "What is unsaid or what is not seen can be just as important as what is said or what is seen." In "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" I was interested in telling a story about how the Cultural Revolution affected a father/daughter relationship. In the film, we never see the cultural revolution or talk about it, and the father says "it's enough just to survive all that." Yet we see how it has affected their relationship so powerfully after all these years.

Footnote: Wayne Wang has the movies in his heritage. His father named him after John Wayne.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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