A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

The weighty mouthful of a title is somewhat ironic counterpoint for this quiet, mannered tale of how we feel most acutely distance from those genetically closest to us. Adapted from a novel by Yiyun Li, Wayne Wang's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a slow-played, smartly observed movie about familial reconciliation and rapprochement that only unravels at the very end.

A retired widower from Beijing, Mr. Shi (Henry O, above right) comes to Los Angeles to visit his cool-to-the-touch adult daughter, Yilan (Faye Yu, above left), who's recently undergone a divorce. Her isolation and estrangement from her father is palpable; Yilan barely conceals her irritation at having to explain things to him, or having him ask the definitions of certain words, and it's obvious that his gentle chidings ("You subscribe to the newspaper — you should read it") enormously get under her skin.

With Yilan at work during the day, and concocting excuses to stay out at night, Mr. Shi is a purposefully orphaned house guest, so he wanders down to the local park, where he meets a friendly Iranian woman (Vida Ghahremani). Without a common language, they resort to expressing themselves to one another using a mixture of their respective languages and broken English. Mr. Shi, a former rocket scientist, confesses to her he was frequently absent as a father, and doesn't understand his daughter. As Yilan drifts further away, though, Mr. Shi endeavors to get to the heart of the mystery surrounding her unhappiness.

Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Smoke) has a nice touch with actors, and his cast here is characteristically wonderful. Elegantly spare in its construction and production design, the film often unfolds in echo-overlap scenes (Yilan and her father at home eating dinner, Mr. Shi in the park with his new friend) that fit together like Russian nesting dolls, with minute differences and coded dialogue exchanges (Mr. Shi musters an apology by way of conversational observance that the world would be a better place if parents were first grandparents) giving us small new insights into the characters.

While there are a few bits of social misunderstanding (Mr. Shi is baffled by the men-seeking-men personals in the newspaper, and inquires about the etymology of K-U-M, versus the word "come"), they're not played broadly, or for laughs, but rather quietly, to highlight cultural alienation. There's a certain beauty in all this restraint — Wang's film reminds one that many screen storytelling conventions diverge from the clipped manner in which we converse and interact in real life — but the movie, in its final lap, also leaves one a bit wanting.

Wang sets up some fascinating generational and geographical stalemates. When the knives finally do come out, Yilan movingly articulates the discomfort she feels speaking her native language, given the uncommunicativeness she witnessed in her parents; despite feeling like a bit of a stranger in America, she feels at home with English. Yet Mr. Shi's cathartic revelation takes place in unrealistic overheard fashion, and so A Thousand Years of Good Prayers feels a bit unresolved. Perhaps that's a minority cultural commentary within a larger cultural commentary, but it also feels like a bit of a cop-out. For the original review, from H Magazine, click here. (Magnolia, unrated, 83 minutes)


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