Interview: Wayne Wang on “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”

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09182008_thousandyears1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Since the ’90s, Hong Kong-born filmmaker Wayne Wang has directed large-scale Hollywood productions like “The Joy Luck Club” and “Maid in Manhattan,” though his richest films have really been his smaller projects, like “Smoke” and its companion work, “Blue in the Face.” Going back to the earliest days of his career, Wang was at his most personal and independent with films like 1982’s “Chan is Missing” and 1985’s “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart,” and it’s these stories of the immigrant experience that Wang felt obliged to return to, having moved to America as a teenager.

Winner of four awards at the San Sebastián Film Festival, including best film, Wang’s distinctly modest delight “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” is the first of his two films adapted by author Yiyun Li from her own collection of Chinese-American-themed stories. (The second is “The Princess of Nebraska,” which arrives for free on YouTube in October.) In “A Thousand Years,” the wonderful Henry O. stars as Mr. Shi, an aging widower who travels to the U.S. in hopes of repairing his divorced daughter’s life. His intentions are admirable, but being raised in a different generation and culture, he doesn’t realize how intrusive he is to her, even as he begins to warmly befriend and explore the curiosities of small-town America around him. I spoke with Wang back in July, before it was announced that Magnolia would be debuting “A Thousand Years” in theaters and “Princess” online.

What led to you collaborating on back-to-back films with Yiyun Li?

Well, they’re both short stories from the collection called “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.” I had a lot of younger Chinese women working on the film as assistants and what-not, and I became more obsessed at the same time with “Princess of Nebraska,” which is about someone in their twenties — a completely different type of story, yet thematically linked. By the time I finished “A Thousand Years,” I had some money left in the budget, and I asked the investors, “Can I make ‘Princess of Nebraska?’ We’ll do it kind of down and dirty, a little bit like ‘Blue in the Face.'” So we did two films that are basically sister films. In France, where I just came back from doing press, they’re showing the two films together. “A Thousand Years” is about a woman who is trying to run away from her past because of the Cultural Revolution, and what her father went through. And “The Princess of Nebraska” is about a woman who doesn’t have a past, who doesn’t really have a history, and is trying to find herself everywhere. So they are kind of a diptych.

09182008_thousandyears2.jpgWas “The Princess of Nebraska” shot as quickly as “Blue in the Face,” which you did in just six days, if I’m not mistaken?

Yeah. It’s not as improvised as “Blue in the Face,” but is the same kind of guerilla-style filmmaking. We had a script, we did some rehearsals, and it was all non-professional actors. We shot it with no permits, with a small HD camera — very small, one of those consumer ones. It was done very much on the fly.

Why did you decide now in your career to go back to making smaller films?

They’re more personal; I care about them more. I want to get back to Chinese-American material, and I wanted more creative material over everything. [laughs] It’s very difficult. Even though you have money and access to a lot of resources, you don’t have control over the material in a big-budget studio film. In this case, I really had complete control. I could say, “I don’t want to shoot the scene today. I’m going to figure out a new scene,” or do something really wild and crazy, and they don’t ask that I call somebody up to ask permission.

Yiyun Li has described two Chinas: “The first is a country filled with people, like my family and many others, who try to lead serious and meaningful lives despite the political, economic and cultural dilemmas they face. The second is a country with a government controlled by one party, made rich from corruption and injustice. I love the first China but do not love the second. So when I think about China today, I always have mixed feelings.” What part does China play in your life today?

I think both, you know? I deal with people like Yiyun and her family, and [those] in Chinatown that I run into — real people working to make a living. At the same time, even though I’m so far away, I have to deal with the government because the film was originally supposed to be co-financed by China. At the last minute, they came back and said, “Well, we have to take some lines out, we have to change the line where the father says, ‘Communism is not bad, it just fell into the wrong hands.'” So I’m dealing with both Chinas, you know? The bureaucracy is still pretty strong, and you have to deal with it. Parallel [to that] was when Google was trying to get into China and had to make all these compromises to even exist in China. That’s the kind of irony that one lives with in China.

There have been a lot of films lately reflecting upon the Cultural Revolution, especially in terms of how it affects family. Do you think there’s something about the hindsight that seems to be speaking to people directly, some sort of post-Cultural Revolution zeitgeist?

09182008_thousandyears3.jpgIt’s a big topic. While the Cultural Revolution was going on, I myself was very much involved with it. I remember Mao’s “Little Red Book,” having study groups and things like that. On principle, and ideally, they were quite amazing. But a lot of people were hurt by it, killed by it, put in prison by it. Some of that is beginning to manifest itself and spill out. In this particular film, I never wanted to deal with the Cultural Revolution directly because it’s so brutal. I wanted to deal with the aftereffects of it: the father, how he was persecuted for having an affair and probably went to jail for a bit, then wasn’t allowed to be a rocket scientist, and how that affected the family — all of that is so common. The irony of it now is “The Princess of Nebraska.” If you look at the newer generation, they don’t even know what really happened. They have a vague idea, but they don’t [know the full extent]. The image of the Tank Man is completely outside of their consciousness because that particular image is not allowed in China.

My favorite scenes in “A Thousand Years” were the unsubtitled exchanges between Henry O. and Vida Ghahremani, the Iranian woman he befriends in the park. Unlike other films that address similar topics, this doesn’t seem as much about cultural identity as it is human contact. Could you address that approach?

The woman was in the short story, but she was a little different. When I decided to shoot the film in Spokane, I realized there was actually a sizable Iranian community there and we made her specifically Iranian. I always believed that people from different cultures without a commonality of language can coexist pretty well. I walk around downtown New York, or the Mission [District] in San Francisco, and I seldom hear English spoken anymore. [laughs] There are a lot of mixed couples and people from different parts of the world, and I think that’s the future, or that’s the “now” already; it’s very global. I grew up Chinese in a British colony, and then came to America, so it comes out very naturally for me, rather than try to figure out a cultural identity. I was talking with a young kid yesterday who interviewed me for a magazine called Washington Diplomat or something, and they write only about cultures. He’s Vietnamese, but he’s completely American, and I asked him, “Do you worry about what and who you are?” He says, “No, I know who I am. I’m kind of a mish-mash.” These days, the kids are comfortable with it.

But within this global evolution, as subcultures and sub-subcultures form, do you think we’re becoming more united or divided by our individuality?

09182008_thousandyears4.jpgHmm, that’s a very tough question. [laughs] I think it’s both. I think at times we are more united, and I hate to say it, but I think we’re probably more divided at times. Sometimes those differences cannot be bridges, and those differences have very historical connections and past related to it. People kind of isolate themselves more. In a way, the computer has globalized everyone, but on a personal level, talking with people directly has also divided them. I don’t know, what do you think?

I think we’re on the same page. You mention the computer, which makes me think — with younger generations using Internet abbreviations and picking up slang both old and new, how important do you think the integrity of language is to society today?

I always like creating something new, but I think the integrity of the language also needs to be kept. I get really upset when these young kids don’t know the original language and only the shorthand. I think the shorthand form is really creative and interesting. In the same way, as a filmmaker, I need to know the classics; I need to know the history of films before I can break all the rules. If you don’t and you just start breaking the rules, I don’t think that’s good. But I’m always encouraged by new films and languages, so that’s my dilemma. I wish the two could always be there, that people still try to do what the language is meant to and try to understand it. Not fully and completely, but at least be interested in it — learning it, then breaking all the rules.

[Photos: “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” Magnolia Pictures, 2008; director Wayne Wang]

“A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” opens in New York on September 19th; “The Princess of Nebraska” will premiere online on October 17th.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.