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Thousand Years of Good Prayer, A (2008)
Friday, September 19, 2008
Faye Yu, Henry O, Vida Ghahremani, Pasha Lychnikoff
Elderly Mr. Shi (Henry O), a widower and a retired scientist, has arrived from Beijing to spend time with his divorced daughter, Yilan (Faye Yu). He hopes to help her sort out her life in this strange new country. That, after all, is his duty as a parent. Twelve years ago, Yilan came to the United States to study, and ended up staying and working at the local university in this unnamed Midwestern town. Mr. Shi finds her daughter too quiet, living in a nondescript apartment complex and leading what seems like an empty routine existence.
The only person he feels close to in this cold new universe is Madam (Vida Ghahremani) , an elderly and vivacious Iranian woman living with her son and his family. They begin to meet regularly on a local park bench. Since they can’t speak much English, they end up conversing in a mix of their own language and a smattering of English words. The miracle is that they seem to communicate easily while Mr. Shi and his own daughter find themselves at an impasse.
For Yilan, expressing herself in English is far easier than in Chinese. “If you grew up in a language in which you never learned to express your feels,” she says to her father, “it would be easier to talk in a new language. It makes you a new person.” Mr. Shi has his secrets, too. He’s doesn’t like to talk about the past, particularly the painful events of the Cultural Revolution.
Thousand Years of Good Prayer, A (2008) | Review
It's Like Talking to a Wall
The film (based on a short story by Yiyun Li) opens as Mr. Shi arrives in America to visit his daughter Yilan, who has been here for twelve years. One would think that after such a long time apart that they would have much to tell and to ask. Waiting for his bags, they stand together in silence. But a woman comes up and introduces her friend to him. She and Mr. Shi had adjoining seats on the flight and he had shared stories that she found fascinating. How could a stranger be so much more interested in him than his daughter? That dynamic is the key to the film.
Like Yilan, both Li and director Wayne Wang grew up traditionally in China, but now live in the U.S. They have experienced this sort of dynamic first-hand. That personal understanding adds to the realism of the film.
Yilan and her father have much that they could talk about. Mr. Shi is concerned about his daughter's happiness. She is divorced, and doesn't want to talk about her personal life. She has become Americanized. To her such things should be hers to sort out on her own. But her father still holds to the traditional attitude that a father continues to care for his child. Yilan tries to create a barrier of silence between them, and in time even begins to physically abandon her father. She'd like to ship him off on a bus tour of America. He wants to understand and help her.
Because they don't speak, they are unable to deal with the issues that are between them. Mr. Shi has never told Yilan the true story of his being a rocket scientist, a claim that Yilan resents because she knew he was not. Yilan has her own secrets that she doesn't want to share. They seem doomed to spend their time together in silence—resentful silence for Yilan and a worried silence for her father.
It would be easy to place the blame for all this on Yilan. She seems to treat her father as an intrusion in her life. It is she who runs away to work or just to a movie by herself. She resents the way he brings bits of Chinese culture into her thoroughly American apartment. But the foundation for this was no doubt laid many years ago in the stories that Mr. Shi told her that she knew to be untrue. He also represents a past that Yilan is trying to escape. He is not ready for her to be American rather than Chinese.
In contrast to the dynamic of Yilan and her father is a relationship that Mr. Shi strikes up with an Iranian woman he meets in the park. We only know her as Madam. They are of the same generation, but of different cultures. Neither can communicate well in English; they speak a mixture of English and their native tongues. Yet even with such an obstacle they manage to understand the way each struggles with their grown Americanized children.
The film is filled with periods without any dialogue. Some of those times are when Mr. Shi has been left alone, but also scenes in which he and his daughter are together eating or riding in a car. Just because nothing is being said doesn't mean that nothing is happening. There is always something going on that advances the story or defines the characters. These quiet times give viewers time to think about what we are seeing. There is one scene that defines the film. After they finally talk and say things they probably shouldn't, Mr. Shi sits in his room saying the things he would like to say to his daughter. When the camera moves back, we see him through a doorway, facing a wall. Yilan is on the other side of the wall. They are no more than five feet apart, but we can't tell if she can hear him or not. Throughout the film these two have been on opposite sides of an emotional wall. The things they want to say or need to say are never spoken, or if spoken, never heard.
The world continues to have communication problems. It happens between persons, between cultures, between religions, and between nations. All too often we find ourselves talking to a wall, wishing we could be heard—or we sit on the other side of the wall never hearing what others are trying to tell us. We are too busy to take the time to listen, or we just don't want to hear what others have to say.
There are indeed many things that can hamper communication, but with work such things can be overcome—if we truly want to understand each other.
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