Judge Daryl Loomis has taken a feature's worth of cell phone video of his cat sleeping.
Two women. Two generations. Two Chinas.
Like fraternal twins, the latest two films made by Chinese-born director Wayne Wang (The Center of the World) have much in common tonally and thematically, but they are strikingly different in style and execution. Each is excellent in its own way and the contrast between A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska shows a director still at the top of his game.
Facts of the Case
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers:
The Princess of Nebraska
Sasha (Li Ling), a young Chinese girl attending college in Nebraska, finds herself pregnant from a brief encounter with a friend. he wants to terminate the pregnancy, but Nebraska's strict abortion laws force her to travel to California to have the procedure. Through her cell phone camera, she chronicles her journey in the big city while trying to bear the immense burden of her decision.
Of the two films, A Thousand Years is the far more traditional. Quiet and beautiful, Wang tells a highly emotional story without sentimentality. From the opening moments, we know that, while Yilan loves her father, real communication with him is next to impossible. She can't turn him away and must endure his probings, but she changes little in her life to accommodate him. Mr. Shi is a new visitor to a foreign country, he is obsessed with bettering his English and talking to everyone he meets. While sitting in a park, an old Iranian woman sits down next to him and, even though she knows little more English than he, they begin to talk. Their mutually rudimentary understanding of the language with their body movements allow them to communicate freely and surprisingly deeply. This is in sharp contrast to his relationship with his daughter, who has only learned to truly express her emotions in English, while the baggage that her native language brings with it makes her repressed.
A Thousand Years has a simple and direct story about families and communication, but the film is made great by Wang's style and the performances he elicits from the actors. With a painterly eye, the director frames the lush Washington landscapes perfectly. While the characters spend nearly all their time in the city, the beauty of the parks, ponds, and surrounding mountains make me long for home. The shots are slow, allowing us to feel a part of the scene and accenting the understated performances. Yu and O are absolutely brilliant. They have a great father/daughter chemistry and, especially in the case of O, bring deep personal experience into their roles. The supporting performances are the only downside, as they are jarringly stilted, but these actors have such little screen time that it hardly matters.
While maintaining the themes of communication and understanding during troubled times, Wang gives us a very different kind of film in The Princess of Nebraska. Where his previous effort maintained a slow, steady, almost sleepy pace, Princess is a hyper film that befits is subject character's youth and the new media the film was premiered through. Before it hit the festival circuit, Wang debuted The Princess of Nebraska on YouTube, where it was seen for free and in HD (where applicable). With online media beginning to penetrate the film industry, this kind of premier for an established director is a look into the future, especially in the realm of independent film.
As a film, Princess does not have the strength of story or performance that its predecessor had, but much of this is made up in its heavily stylized look and it dual methods of storytelling. First, we have the over-riding story of Sasha trying to make a decision about the fate of her pregnancy while being pushed and pulled in different directions based on other people's desires. Second, and more interesting, we have Sasha's cell phone travelogue, taking us on a journey through her eyes. Her vision of Oakland, where the majority of the film takes place, show us the many troubles of somebody in a vastly different culture and her desire to stay in contact with anyone from her homeland, even the father of her baby who she can hardly care about anymore. The style changes evoke feelings of perspective, establishing how the world sees her and her decision before she answers back with her own viewpoint through her phone images. The method is strange at first, but the stark difference in style is what moves the story. In the end, the method becomes very comfortable and effective in showing both sides. The subjectivity of each view in combination gives a welcome sense of objectivity.
Magnolia Entertainment has released these two fine films in an equally fine two-disc package. A Thousand Years has a better image transfer than Princess overall, but the latter film's problem has more to do with the changing style. Princess was shot in high definition and, for everything but the phone images, the picture looks brilliant. The rest looks appropriately grainy and amateurish, but this is part of the realism. A Thousand Years looks nearly perfect, fantastic in almost every way. The colors pop and the black levels are nicely deep. Both films are very talky and there is little to say for either sound mix, though both are in surround and make little use of the back channels. The extras are somewhat sparse, but those included are very helpful in understanding the films. Both discs contain interviews with writer Yiyun Li, who penned the two stories. She gives her motivations for writing them and clues us in on the real life stories that she drew inspiration from. The best extra is the interview with Henry O on A Thousand Years, a thirty minute discussion that is revealing to say the least. Princess rounds out with some footage of Ling out and about in the city as well as some additional cell phone film footage of Ling in real life that is charming but fairly pointless.
While I've never been a consistent fan of Wang's, I always know he'll deliver something unexpected. Whether it's the quiet meditation of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers or the energetic youth of Princess of Nebraska, this set shows a director still with much to say. These films represent Wang's best work in years.
On both counts, not guilty.
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Scales of Justice, A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers
Perp Profile, A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Distinguishing Marks, A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers
Scales of Justice, The Princess Of Nebraska
Perp Profile, The Princess Of Nebraska
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Distinguishing Marks, The Princess Of Nebraska
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