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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.

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