Friday, May 27, 2011

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers - Of Parental Bondage

In Chinese, there is a saying that 'It takes three hundred years of prayers to cross a river in a boat with someone and it takes three thousand years of prayers to share a pillow with someone'. Wayne Wang's quietly introspective movie is a study in human connections and the nurturing that relationships require to blossom. In the opening shot, a daughter Yilan (Faye Yu) receives her father Mr. Shi (Henry O) with little enthusiasm after his long flight to the United States from China at the arrivals gate. There is no hugging or excitement, an awkward welcome is all he receives. At Yilan's nondescript apartment in an equally nondescript suburb, there is further awkward silence filled in almost desperately by Mr. Shi. He thinks she does not eat enough. He has taken a cookery class back home and tries to warm the house by arranging elaborate home cooked meals.

Yilan leaves for work in too much of a hurry to eat his lovingly prepared breakfast. He idles away his days reading the newspaper, trying to strike a conversation with the pool guy, shopping and preparing meals that father - daughter will partake over stilted conversations. He also has no qualms in snooping around his daughter's room trying to get a feel of her life. He meets a persian lady at the local park who he refers to as Madam (Vida Ghahremani). Between two languages (mandarin and Persian) and an extremely broken English, they manage to form an understanding and bond that Mr. Shi obviously lacks with his daughter. Madam lives with her elder son, a doctor, who is about to have a baby. She feels America is a wonderful country that has given so much to her sons. She hates communism. Mr. Shi tries to explain that only in wrong hands can the power of communism be misused. He shares that his daughter is divorced from a chinese man who returned to China while she stayed back in the United States. He is here to help her get better, as if divorce is a disease that needs a cure. And maybe it is for him. After all he belongs to a generation and culture where couples stick together.

Nothing much happens in the movie and when it finally does towards the end where skeletons stumble out of the closet and explain the cause of Yilan's distance from her father and her resentment at his overt interest in her life, it jars. It jars because then the explanations come pat, tie up swiftly to form a neat resolution and makes us remember that we are after all watching a movie which has concluded its running time. I say this because this movie can almost make us forget that we are watching characters play out on screen. We feel privy to this father - daughter world. They are so real. The tiny situations seem so true to life. Being a south Asian making a life in America and having a visiting parent, I could relate to the cooking of the food, to the need of a parent to fill their progeny's stomachs and then their lives. I could understand the need for Mr. Shi to find another mate for his daughter, to snoop into his daughter's life and make it well again. I understood his palpable loneliness, his inability to understand a culture so alien. His friendship with Madam who despite language barriers, he understands better than his daughter.

'A thousand years of Good Prayers' is appealing to the section of audience who like their movies to reflect quite lives lived. There is a certain charm in watching mundane things play out on screen, a comfort derived from knowing that life for most function on similar grounds. There will always be the cultural differences, the generation gaps, the want of privacy in individuals and the inherent need for parents to reach out and protect their children at every step. Wayne Wang had made a movie on Amy Tan's superior book 'The Joy Luck Club' which I had seen years ago. It was a much more ambitious project, but at heart it centered a similar theme of parents and children dealing with cultural and generational differences. It is a topic he handles well with much sensitivity. He understands the silence this movie needs and respects it, not creating awkward fillers to make noise. It is only in it's final resolution, I felt a sense of drama this movie could have been above.

Communication or the lack of, can distance the strongest of bonds. In America, we are encouraged to speak, share what's on our minds, in our hearts. In lots of other cultures, silence is the way. Yilan is silent, closeted from her father. As she points out 'If you grew up in a language in which you never learned to express your feelings, it would be easier to learn to talk in a new language. It would make you a new person'. Yilan's silence to her father could be her cry that got stifled through the years. For relations to be cemented, it takes a lot of effort and time, maybe even a thousand years.

Originally Released in 2007
Available on DVD
In Mandarin and English with English Subtitles


  1. Seems like a good movie..the kind I like! Thanks for writing the review and I am happy to have such a good writer friend who can express ideas so clearly and effortlessly!

  2. Thx Geetali for the kind words:)

  3. Excellent description!
    Excellent film - silent, deep, real.

  4. A very good review. Thank you!