The Princess of Nebraska

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Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- Like his new "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," Wayne Wang's "The Princess of Nebraska" centers on a Chinese character recently arrived on American soil. This time, it's a very young woman carrying a baby she isn't ready for.

"Princess" doesn't dovetail with "Prayers" the way Wang's pair of 1995 releases, "Smoke" and "Blue in the Face," did, even though they share some general cultural ingredients. If each of these new titles appeals to a limited audience, the number of viewers who will appreciate both is smaller still. In the case of "Princess," the tight narrative focus it shares with "Prayers" is colored by a bleaker outlook and edgier visual style, placing it squarely in the art house arena.

Sasha, a fairly unsympathetic girl, is from Beijing by way of Omaha. She has flown to San Francisco to meet a Westerner, Boshen, who isn't her child's father but is involved in some way we don't initially understand. We're not even certain what it is he's about to help her do -- Arrange an abortion? Make plans to sell the child or find adoptive parents? -- but we know they aren't especially fond of each other.

Boshen is more solicitous, though, than she is of him. He invites her to a dinner party, where Sasha alienates a bunch of upper-class Chinese-Americans and rifles through their purses when nobody's looking. (Later, she'll casually steal a family's shopping bag in a mall food court.) Bored, she sets out on her own to Chinatown, where an ugly night awaits.

Shot in a much more seat-of-the-pants style than "Prayers," the film is as casual about framing as Sasha is about manners. Its colors tend toward the lurid or fluorescent, and its perspective sometimes shifts so that we see action through the viewfinder of Sasha's cell-phone camera. The style suits her night-time adventure, as she meets the tough-girl "X," who may be a prostitute and is definitely unsavory, and proceeds to get drunk in places she has no business being.

The source of Sasha's problems is revealed much as the troubles are in "Prayers" -- at the end of some fruitless wandering, to be followed by an ambiguous resolution. Here, the outlook is bleaker, stranding the expectant mother in the center of a very empty frame. "Moving on," we're told in the film, is a very American idea -- viewers are left to guess whether Sasha can put anything behind her or will be carrying her mistakes for a very long time.

THE PRINCESS OF NEBRASKA
No Distributor
California Asian American Media
Credits:
Director: Wayne Wang
Co-director: Richard Wong
Writer: Michael Ray
Based on the short story by Yiyun Li
Producers: Yukie Kito, Donald Young
Executive producers: Yasushi Kotani, Taizo Son, Stephen Gong
Director of photography: Richard Wong
Production designer: Amy Chan
Music: Kent Sparling
Editor: Deirdre Slevin
Cast:
Sasha: Ling Li
Boshen: Brian Danforth
X: Pamelyn Chee
Running time -- 77 minutes
No MPAA rating
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