Netflix Update No. 71: “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”

August 29, 2012


It’s been done to death in the movies: an aging parent travels to visit an estranged child in an effort to repair the relationship. It was done again in the 2007 film “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” and with satisfactory results.

This film, directed by Wayne Wang, was adapted from a short story by Yiyun Lee , for whom this was a first turn at a screen play. The story concerns Mr. Shi (Henry O), who travels from Beijing to Spokane to visit his recently divorced daughter, Yilan (Feihong Yu). It is clear from the moment Yilan meets Mr. Shi at the airport that the two are barely on speaking terms and that she is not enthusiastic about his visit.


When father and daughter are together, Yilan rarely makes eye contact with Mr. Shi and she says as little as possible to him, particularly in response to his softspoken but blunt observations and questions about her personal life. Subtitles are employed when they speak to each other in Mandarin Chinese. Soon Yilan invents excuses to be absent from her apartment, even when she has no reason to be.


Left on his own, Mr. Shi finds evidence in Yilan’s apartment that she has been planning to send him on tours of other parts of the United States. He also spends time in a nearby park, where he strikes up a relationship with a mature Iranian woman, whom he knows only as “Madam.” Neither of them speaks much English, but in the skilfully directed scenes, they manage to make themselves understood to each other as they discuss their families. Madam is eagerly expecting the birth of a grandchild — something Mr. Shi devoutly wishes his only child would also provide — but the curve of Madam’s life takes an unexpected turn that Mr. Shi would have no reason to envy.

Mr. Shi, who proudly tells anyone he meets that he was a “rocket scientist” in China — a half truth, it turns out — is, philosophically at least, a devout communist, something that contributes to the distance between him and his daughter. He also acknowledges that he was not a good parent because he was away from home so much, and he answers Yilan’s complaint that he was cold with the rationale that he and her mother were “quiet people.”


But the most significant factor in the estrangement is Yilan’s resentment of what she construes to be her father’s infidelity — an ironic complaint in the light of his condemnation of her relationship with a married man. But neither knows all of what has happened in the life of the other, and the story hangs on the likelihood that people so closed off from each other for so long can ever repair the damage.

The movie is beautifully photographed with a high-end high-definition camera and even viewers with conventional receivers will notice the sharpness of the images. Silence is an important element in the drama itself and it plays an important part in the film. It’s a thoughtful story that will appeal to a thoughtful audience.


One Response to “Netflix Update No. 71: “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I can’t help but laugh at that first photo. For years, that was my mother and me – different in physical appearance, but absolutely identical in expression. I know those bench sitters!

    I also remember my panic the day my aunt called and said, “I’m selling my house. It’s time for your mother to come to Texas and live with you. The house went on the market today.” My, my.

    The good news is that the damage can be repaired. It would be interesting to see this film and see how this pair managed it – or not.

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