A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Bottom Line: Wayne Wang returns to Chinese-American themes in intimate depiction of a stunted father/daughter relationship.

TORONTO -- One of two new small-scale films from Wayne Wang (both based on stories by Yiyun Li), "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" is modest but moving, a finely observed portrait of a father/daughter relationship that will resonate deeply for many viewers. The scale may limit its pull in the art house arena somewhat, but Chinese-Americans and viewers from other immigrant communities will appreciate its themes.

The story of a man who doesn't know his daughter at all, "Prayers" showcases an affecting performance by Henry O as Mr. Shi, who has just arrived in Spokane from China to see daughter Yilan for the first time in 12 years. The two greet each other stiffly when he emerges from the airport gates, and Yilan clearly has little idea what to do with him; heading out to work on his first day in town, she suggests that he should "take it easy" and might want to walk to the park.

Shi has higher hopes than that, taking constant notes in order to improve his English and shopping for what he needs to cook in Yilan's underequipped kitchen. For the next few nights, they will see each other only at dinner, where he makes much more food than the two can eat.

Though Shi is eager to make up for lost time (he innocently snoops around her apartment during the day, looking for insight), his daughter spends less and less time at home. Shi (whose wife died of cancer) makes friends at the park with an Iranian woman, and we come to get the point that, if rejecting one's parents is common in many cultures, it's doubly so for immigrants hoping to assimilate in a new environment. Shi and "Madam," as he calls her, have amusingly piecemeal conversations in which three languages are spoken but only one understood.
Until the film's end, when some causes of family tension are finally brought to the surface, this is about all that happens. Wang's empathy for Mr. Shi, and O's dignified persistence in what appears to be a doomed effort to connect, draw us in and keep us from becoming bored. (An 83-minute running time helps in that respect.)

At one point, Yilan repeats a friend's idea that people would be better at raising children if they could somehow be grandparents before becoming parents. She doesn't seem to see the obvious corollary, that we are often far more forgiving of our grandparents' perceived faults than of our parents'. "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" waits patiently for her to piece it together.

No Distributor
North by Northwest
Director: Wayne Wang
Writer: Yiyun Li
Based on the short story by Yiyun Li
Producers: Yukie Kito, Rich Cowan, Wayne Wang
Executive producers: Yasushi Kotani, Taizo Son, Jooick Lee
Director of photography: Patrick Lindenmaier
Production designer: Vincent De Felice
Music: Lesley Barber
Costume designer: Lisa Caryl
Editor: Deirdre Slevin
Yilan: Faye Yu
Mr. Shi: Henry O
Madam: Vida Ghahremani
Boris: Pasha Lychnikoff
Running time -- 83 minutes
No MPAA rating