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.





You have to like the implications of President Barack Obama’s choice of Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah as ambassador to China. Obama ignored what to many is conventional thinking by giving such a plum job to the man who co-directed the McCain-Palin campaign. And while Huntsman described his own high ground by saying he could not refuse the call to service, the fact is that he could have turned down a position  that will disrupt his family and preempt what would have been a certain new term as governor. As to the idea that giving Huntsman this appointment was Obama’s way of getting the governor out of the running for the White House in 2012, Huntsman will be only 57 years old in 2016 by which time the Democratic juggernaut, such as it is, should have run out of steam anyway.

More important, Huntsman is by reputation a straightforward, intelligent, sensible man who is well equipped to help further a foreign policy that promises to forsake the bullheaded and arrogant policies of the Cheney-Bush administration — transposition deliberate. Huntsman, from what I have read so far, can strike the balance necessary to deal with a country like China: respecting its history and the culture of its people, exploring the interests it shares with the United States, and keeping up the discussion of American concerns about human rights issues in China.

It will be interesting to see what effect this appointment has on Huntsman’s standing in his party, both because the appointment makes him a part of an administration that the most vocal Republicans profess to loathe and because he is likely to help advance a policy of engagement – in China and elsewhere – that was rejected by the last administration and by the Republican candidates in the last national election.

Put ‘er there, pal.

April 21, 2009




Former Vice President Dick Cheney thinks President Obama has sent the wrong message by traveling to Europe and Latin America and suggesting that the United States is rethinking its recent foreign policies. Cheney said last night that Obama needs to distinguish more clearly between “the good guys and the bad guys,” which I learned to do when I was 10 years old playing cops and robbers with Mike and Joe Pellegrino. That’s how we think when we’re 10.

Cheney is dismissing what we learned from Richard Nixon, that pretending that your adversaries and critics don’t exist (Cheney said the Bush administration’s policy was to “ignore” Hugo Chavez) is seldom productive. Cheney didn’t like that Obama shook hands with Chavez. Nixon shook hands with Zhou Enlai because China’s fall-out with the Soviets created an opportunity for the U.S. with respect to both countries, and, I suppose, because Henry Kissinger’s earlier snub of the Chinese premier had gained the United States nothing. The old “good guy-bad guy” model seldom works. And the idea that Cheney casts himself and his kind as the “good guys”  in this world is exactly the kind of hubris that causes more trouble than it solves.