Meticulously paced and beautifully shot, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers brings us into the life of Mr. Shi (Henry Q) at the moment he walks into a train station in Spokane, Washington, where he is greeted with seeming lack of affection by his adult daugher, Yilan (Faye Yu). Director Wayne Wang, getting back into indie film after making films like Maid in Manhattan and Because of Winn-Dixie, has made a lovely film here about the often complicated relationship between fathers and their adult daughters. The film, adapted by Yiyun Li for the screen from her short story of the same name, has much in it that was written specifically about this dynamic in Chinese families, but most anyone watching the film will find something to relate to in the interactions between Mr. Shi and his daughter.
Mr. Shi has come to Spokane to stay with his Yilan, to help her through the aftermath of a divorce. He is simultaneously overprotective and uncertain, and his presence in her spartan apartment very clearly makes Yilan uncomfortable. He's like a family knick-knack sent by a well-meaning great-aunt -- he's out of place in his daughter's apartment and her life, but because he's her father, she can't just toss him away. He fumbles about, trying to help his daughter in the only way he knows how, by cooking Chinese food for her. Abundantly. (Don't go see this film if you're hungry, you'll be craving the nearest Chinese buffet by the time it's over.)
Is there an adult daughter anywhere who doesn't have some unresolved issues with her father? Yilan, who was closer to her now-deceased mother throughout her childhood, is uncertain how to deal with his intrustion into her life. His close proximity and hovering over her start to bring out deeply held resentments in Yilan, who must decide whether to confront her father with truths she knows but has never spoken about.
The film moves as slowly as Mr. Shi's long days alone in his daughter's apartment while she works and stays out late. Once he's papered over the stove backsplash with newspaper to protect it from wok grease-splatter, played with Yilan's Russian matrioshka nested dolls, and rifled through her bills and bank statements, there's not much left to do besides explore the world outside Yilan's apartment. A trip down to the pool nets meeting a ditzy blond in a teeny bikini; that frightens Mr. Shi enough to keep him far away from the pool after that. At the park he meets Madam, an older Iranian lady who lives with her adult son and his wife.
There's a well-placed thread about communication woven throughout the film: Mr Shi and Madam do not share a common language -- he speaks Chinese, she speaks Farsi, they both speak a very little, very broken, English. Yet they are able to communicate and understand each other more than Mr. Shi and his own daughter. Wang underscores this point by not subtitling the scenes between Mr. Shi and Madam -- you don't need the subtitles to get the gist of what they're saying. When Mr. Shi learns about the Russian man his daughter is seeing, she reveals to him that part of what led her to have an affair with him is that she could talk to him -- really talk -- in English, whereas with her husband, with whom she spoke Chinese, she couldn't communicate. Yilan tells her father that speaking in a different language than your own allows you to become a different person.
The cinematography is as precise and spare as the communication between this father and daughter throughout the film. Cinematographer Patrick Lindenmaier has executed each moment to perfection -- every shot is lined up just so, with careful thought given to little details like the placement of a wall in a scene, a recurrent visual element that serves to underline the deep lack of communication between Mr. Shi and Yilan. The music in the film is just as decisive as the shots -- every note carefully placed to enhance the scene (the score actually reminded me a lot of the score for Tony Takatani, another lovely film that moved along at a pace all its own).
The overall effect of the film is soothing, thoughtful, and deeply introspective. The quiet moments give you plenty of time and headspace to ponder the specifics of great filmmaking that sometimes get lost -- the angle of a shot, the perfect ray of sunlight through a window, the shadow across a face, the timepiece precision of single piano notes marking the passage of time. Fast-paced action flicks keep you on the edge of your seat; Wang seats you in a comfortable chair in the perfect corner and invites you to enjoy the scenery and the carefully wrought story of the two people before you. And it's a lovely ride.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayer has one remaining public TIFF screening, on Friday, September 14 at 8PM. You can also catch the companion piece, Wang's The Princess of Nebraska, Saturday, September 15 at 10PM.