REVIEW: The Princess Of Nebraska/A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers

Monday, November 05, 2007 at 6:00 a.m.
This marks the fiftieth (!) and fifty-first film I saw at the Hollywood Arclight Cinemas, and is the third and fourth films I saw as part of the AFI FEST programme.

It is a double feature, based on short stories written by Yiyun Li and directed by Wayne Wang, with the former being a companion piece to the latter (think Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima). Wayne Wang, of course, directed the beautiful The Joy Luck Club, the sublime Anywhere But Here, and the surprisingly good The Last Holiday with Queen Latifah. Here, he displays his very indie sensibilities.

The Princess Of Nebraska, in particular, is filled with handheld shots a la The Bourne Supremacy - i.e. shaky handheld even during quiet scenes. It also has a penchant for long shots - the opening five minutes shows a pair of red shoes pacing around an airport. The ending consists of just two shots of the protagonist mouthing out the words of an Anthony Johnson song that lasts ... five minutes. And they say the opening montage of my film is long. Bah.

As you can gather, I didn't like this one all that much. I was waiting for it to end for much of the time. I like that it does that "not explaining to the audience, letting them find out what's going on on their own" thing - it was fully halfway through the film before I grasped the predicament of the female protagonist. At the same time she is bitchy - in that Chinese girl manner, Zhang Ziyi would have had a field day playing such a role, if she ever finds a contemporary role to play - and inconsistent, not in the sense of the actress doing a bad job but that the character is unsure of herself, unsure of the decisions she had to make (both major and minor). Point is she is really quite unlikable sometimes. And then these supporting characters pop up, seemingly without reason or purpose. And then the movie ends.

A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers fared better. It is a drastic change of style - this is filmed first, and with a more classic sensibility. Camera stays still. This is because it is a story of an old Chinese man coming to America to be with her daughter, who lives in Spokane. And when she leaves for work, his life is silent. Horribly so. The film makes us understand what it's like to be old, and in the character's case, to be somewhat estranged from one's daughter. He does that old Chinese people thing, always trying to direct their lives (go to sleep now, eat more, one must be happy in life - why are you unhappy?), which made me and much of the audience chuckle. But this isn't a comedy. It is a quiet drama about loneliness. It seems like the sort of film someone has done before - but it's the first time I've come across it.

The performances are all subtle. Nothing showy. There is one scene towards the end where it seems that things are about to explode. But it never does. It's a Chinese family after all.

So we come to the end, and things look happy. Some things get resolved - others, it doesn't matter. Almost as if there isn't really a conflict in the film, conflict, which is so valuable to films according to my Screenwriting instructor.

Anyway, at least I saw it, and fulfilled my promise to Wayne Wang back in the Opening Night Feed at the Telluride Film Festival.

How Good I Think The Film Is: 5/10, 6.5/10
How Much I Liked It: 4.5/10, 6/10

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