With the quiet, understated "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," Wayne Wang has come full circle, returning to the small, intimate films like "Chan Is Missing," "Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart" and "Eat a Bowl of Tea" that established the Hong Kong-born Chinese American writer-director, best known for his deft screen adaptation of "The Joy Luck Club."
When recently widowed Mr. Shi (Henry O), a dignified, slightly stooped older man from Beijing, arrives in Spokane he tells his attractive daughter Yilan (Faye Yu), whom he has not seen in 12 years, that she looks exactly the same. That she is brusquely dismissive of her father's remark proves revealing: She is not really glad to see him and it does not occur to him that she has been changed by life in the U.S.
Mr. Shi immediately starts behaving like a traditional Chinese father, wanting to know everything Yilan does and where she goes, imposing upon her his conservative views of women that clash with the liberated, independent, self-reliant woman she has become. Yilan's resentment, however, bespeaks of older grievances and Wang's staging of the inevitable climactic scene is inspired. As Mr. Shi, who could not be more well meaning, pours out his heart to Yilan, sitting in his bedroom, Yilan is in her living room. We hope that she is hearing him through an open door, but we cannot be certain.
In adapting "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" from a Yiyun Li short story, Wang shows us America through the experiences of Mr. Li and Yilan -- and also the enduring effects upon the individual life in China under six decades of communist rule. For Mr. Shi, the U.S. piques his boundless curiosity but alarms him with its dismissive attitudes toward the elderly. For Yilan, it is the land of freedom and opportunity; she feels more comfortable expressing herself in English, saying, "If you grew up in a language in which you never learned how to express your feelings it would be easier to talk in a new language. It makes you a new person."
Rich in revealing detail and apt in its use of everyday Spokane settings, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" shows that Wang remains a master explorer of the landscape of the human heart.
"A Thousand Years of Good Prayers." MPAA rating: Unrated. In English, Mandarin and Farsi, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. At Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 477-5581; the Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; and the Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.