A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Family Drama

  • Written by Yiyun Lee; based on her short story
  • Directed by Wayne Wang

Generations and cultures clash, but quietly, in Wayne Wang’s return to Chinese-American subject matter.

Things feel strained when widower Mr. Shi (Henry O) arrives in America to visit his daughter Yilan (Faye Yu). That’s understandable. They haven’t seen each other since she left China 15 years before, and he’s here to help her recover from a divorce. But as Yilan avoids talking to her father while discouraging his attempted nurturing, we begin to realize just how much each of them is concealing.

Lee and Wang let the drama build slowly by emphasizing culture-clash comedy in the film’s first half. Not broad comedy (well, the unemployed forensic scientist in the bikini is pretty broad), but quite funny in a low-key way.

But the laughs ease us into the problems ahead. It’s soon clear that her father is the last person Yilan wants to confide anything to, and she’s soon doing everything she can to avoid his presence.

Everyone in the small cast is spot on, but Henry O is the true revelation here. A familiar face from costume films and action flicks, here he reveals a depth and humanity that he hadn’t yet shown–at least not to American audiences.

After the leads, the only character with any sort of significant role is Madame–an aging Iranian refugee played by Vida Ghahremani. After meeting in a park, Madame and Mr. Shi build a friendship despite a significant language barrier. The only language they have in common is English, which neither speaks well. Wang wisely avoids subtitles in their scenes together, forcing us to struggle with them to understand each other.

Shot cheaply on video, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is the sort of wonderful story that Hollywood would just mess up, but that modern technology makes economically feasible outside of Hollywood.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers screened at the 2008 San Francisco Asian American Film Festival.