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THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT

A chance for double exposure

When Wayne Wang's indie effort 'A Thousand Years of Good Prayers' came in under budget, he gave his backers two films for the price of one.

September 21, 2008|Gary Goldstein | Special to The Times

SHUTTLING between independent and studio pictures since helming 1993's successful "The Joy Luck Club," Wayne Wang has seen his latter career marked by a distinct duality of purpose. It's no surprise then that the filmmaker recently chose to shoot two divergent low-budget movies back to back, then release them almost simultaneously as companion pieces.

Making the gentle and heartfelt "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," opening Friday in L.A., followed by the brash, more experimental "The Princess of Nebraska," premiering online on YouTube on Oct. 17 (youtube.com/ytscreeningroom), had its risks, both practical and artistic, harking back to such other notable Wang pairings as "Chan Is Missing" (1982) and "Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart" (1985), flip-side views of San Francisco's Chinatown; and 1995's Brooklyn-based art-house hit "Smoke" and its immediate follow-up, "Blue in the Face."

Nonetheless, the director's latest efforts represent a much-needed creative U-turn after helming an uneven string of big-budget studio films, including the Jennifer Lopez hit "Maid in Manhattan" and the more disappointing "Because of Winn-Dixie" and "Last Holiday."

"It was almost like being on a treadmill that I couldn't get off," the genial Wang, 59, recalled recently at the Four Seasons Hotel near Beverly Hills. "But after 'Last Holiday,' I took a break and wondered, 'Why am I doing all this right now?' 'What do I really want to do?' "

Wang realized there were personal areas he wanted to revisit on film, particularly the Chinese American experience, which he had not explored since "The Joy Luck Club." Concurrently, Wang's friend Michael Ray, editor of Francis Ford Coppola's literary and arts quarterly "Zoetrope: All Story," recommended that Wang read a collection of short stories by Yiyun Li, a young writer from China living and teaching in the Bay Area. "Once I read her book, I knew this was the movie I wanted to make," Wang said.

He zeroed in on the title story, the Spokane, Wash.-set, father-daughter estrangement tale "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," as the book's most cinematic. Wang also had an emotional connection to the piece, which he felt echoed some of his own once-strained family dynamics. "Like [the daughter] Yilan in the story, I also immigrated to America in my 20s and became a different person," Wang said. "Maybe 10 years after I left China, my father came to visit. Our dinners together were really difficult. He'd ask so many personal questions I didn't want to answer. In my wife's and my absence, my father, just like the father in the film, would go through our things to find out what we were up to."

Wang entrusted author Li to adapt the screenplay, even though she had never written a script. "If it's not a so-called commercial studio script, I find that if you use the original writer -- and if I work with them -- I can get more integrity out of the adaptation," Wang said. "In this case, I didn't just want dialogue scenes, I wanted silences, and Yiyun got it right away."

After working consistently on studio product, those "silences" became extra-important to Wang, who was influenced by filmmaker Yasujir{omacronl} Ozu. "I really missed giving the audience some time to think about their own relationship to what they're watching," Wang said. "Hollywood films don't give you a chance to do that at all. They just want to move you to the next step."

Henry O, who turns in a quietly winning performance as the concerned, conservative father, Mr. Shi, found himself the happy beneficiary of Wang's sensitive approach. "Wayne is after something that is far beyond superficial. He pays attention to the feelings of the character, not the gestures or the way the lines are delivered," said the 81-year-old Chinese emigre who, like Wang, settled in San Francisco. "He taught me, 'You really don't have to act -- just be.' "

"I love the character of Mr. Shi," Wang said. "I love what Henry did with it. I felt it was so important for the world to see an older Chinese man in a movie, shown in a very realistic way. That's my big accomplishment with this film."

O ("The Last Emperor," "Rush Hour 3") is the father of three middle-aged children who, not unlike his on-screen daughter (played by Faye Yu), regularly reject his and his wife's advice. "They have their problems, so we worry," O said. "Just like Mr. Shi, we deeply love our children."

The actor has another connection to Mr. Shi, a former rocket scientist once accused of a deceitful, life-changing act he never committed. "I'd undergone political difficulties in China during the 1950s and '60s and was publicly criticized for something I was innocent of," said O, "so I knew first-hand how damaging a lie can be."

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