Director Wayne Wang's recent big studio movies have starred Jennifer Lopez (Maid in Manhattan), Queen Latifah (Last Holiday) and a lovable canine (Because of Winn Dixie.) With his latest, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the director of 1982's Chan is Missing, considered a landmark in Asian American cinema, returns to his indie roots and another story of the Chinese in America.
We sat down in San Francisco to discuss the movie. Wang ignored the nuts, dried fruit and blueberries set out for him ("Too healthy for me. I like chocolate.") and talked about the relationship between language and freedom, the difficulty of communication, and the importance of breathing.
I asked Wang why he wanted to make a movie of Yiyun Li's story about a widower from China, Mr. Shi, who visits his divorced daughter, Yilan, in America. The relationship between the father and daughter is strained, and she doesn't appreciate his efforts to fix her life. Wang says there were lots of reasons the story appealed to him. "I identified personally quite a lot," he said. "I came to America and learned a new language and culture and freedom."
As a teenager, Wang moved to the Bay Area from Hong Kong and went to the California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA) in Oakland. Wang says he had a hard time communicating with his father, as the daughter and father do in the movie. Some of his favorite scenes in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers are the ones between Mr. Shi and an Iranian woman he meets in the park. Although neither one speaks English well, they are able to talk to each other about their fears that their children don't want them around.
"They find a commonality in their body language," Wang says. "They are able to express themselves. The father and daughter speak the same language, but they don't communicate."
I wanted to know why Wang has veered wildly between styles and subject matters with his movies. For example, after making The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan's story of mothers and daughters, he worked with writer Paul Auster on Smoke, a comedy set in a smoke shop in Brooklyn. He says he hates the idea of being pinned down.
"After The Joy Luck Club, all I was getting offered was Chinese women movies," he says. "So I went to Brooklyn and made a guy movie."
In Hollywood movies all the silences and pauses are taken out, Wang says. The pacing in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is radically different. "My doctor always tells me I have very shallow breathing," he says. "With this movie, I wanted to breathe. I wanted to take my time."
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers opens Friday, September 26, 2008.