Wayne Wang Revisits The Immigrant Experience

Director Wayne Wang i i

hide captionWayne Wang was born and raised in Hong Kong and moved to the U.S. in his late teens. Many of his films explore the Chinese-American immigrant experience.

Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
Director Wayne Wang

Wayne Wang was born and raised in Hong Kong and moved to the U.S. in his late teens. Many of his films explore the Chinese-American immigrant experience.

Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
Faye Yu and Henry O in 'A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers' i i

hide captionIn A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Mr. Shi (Henry O), a widower, travels to the U.S. to help his daughter, Yilan (Faye Yu), after her divorce. They find it difficult to overcome the generational and cultural gap between them.

Magnolia Pictures
Faye Yu and Henry O in 'A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers'

In A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Mr. Shi (Henry O), a widower, travels to the U.S. to help his daughter, Yilan (Faye Yu), after her divorce. They find it difficult to overcome the generational and cultural gap between them.

Magnolia Pictures
Ling Li in 'The Princess of Nebraska' i i

hide captionIn The Princess of Nebraska, Sasha (Ling Li) is a pregnant young Chinese woman who seeks to have an abortion in the U.S. The film will be released on YouTube in October.

Magnolia Pictures
Ling Li in 'The Princess of Nebraska'

In The Princess of Nebraska, Sasha (Ling Li) is a pregnant young Chinese woman who seeks to have an abortion in the U.S. The film will be released on YouTube in October.

Magnolia Pictures

Ever since he followed a pair of San Francisco cabbies around Chinatown in Chan Is Missing, cross-cultural misunderstandings have been a favorite theme for Chinese-American director Wayne Wang.

Now, in two new films, Wang continues his exploration of the immigrant experience. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers opens in U.S. theaters this month. In October, he'll release the companion film, The Princess of Nebraska — free, on YouTube.

The Evolving Immigrant Experience

Back in the '80s, Wang extracted sly humor from the struggles of fellow Chinese-American immigrants. Learning a new language and navigating a cultural minefield of miscommunications provided rich material for the young filmmaker.

But now a more mature Wang sees cross-cultural misunderstandings occurring within the Asian community and across generations. And he found the perfect vehicle to explore these themes in a pair of short stories by novelist Yiyun Li that span three generations of Chinese immigrants.

In A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a father visits his adult daughter in the U.S. They share a common language, but cannot communicate.

"The father and the daughter are from two different generations," Wang says. "The father went through the Cultural Revolution and specifically suffered a lot of injustices at that time, and the daughter was very much affected by it."

The daughter has come to America to distance herself from her past in China.

"She learned a new language and new culture," says Wang, "and [she] became a new person."

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers focuses on a Chinese immigrant who has been in the U.S. for years. The Princess of Nebraska looks to a much younger immigrant who has just arrived in the U.S.

Sasha lands in San Francisco with plans to get an abortion. She speaks English and is Westernized in her behavior, attitude and clothing. At a dinner party, the older Chinese-American guests question her about her homeland and are surprised that she knows so little about events such as Tiananmen Square.

Two Generations Of Filmmakers

These two new films return Wang to his indie roots. He spent the past decade making such formulaic Hollywood films as Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday.

But it's Wang's independent films, including Chan Is Missing and the beguiling cigar-shop dramedy Smoke, that made him a role model for aspiring Asian-American filmmakers.

"I think I'm just a bad influence," Wang says. "All these young kids think, 'Oh, I can go into filmmaking and make a lot of money,' and then they quit their real jobs."

Richard Wong was one of those young kids. The 32-year-old filmmaker was tapped by Wang to co-direct and shoot The Princess of Nebraska. Having two generations of filmmakers behind the camera brought depth to the generational clashes in the movie, the younger man says.

"When I read the script, all I really saw was this spoiled brat, who for the first time in her life is forced to make a decision because she can't get away with a pregnancy," Wong says. "I certainly related to that, because I think a lot of us growing up are that way."

But Wang, with more than two decades as a cultural observer, sees Sasha's particular experiences in the context of a larger and ever-changing immigrant community.

"She's in her 20s," Wang points out. "She grew up in the last 20 years of China's economic boom and also the sexual revolution, too."

Reaching A Younger Audience

The way these two films will be released further emphasizes generational differences. Magnolia Pictures releases A Thousand Years of Good Prayers in theaters this month. Princess of Nebraska will have its debut on YouTube in October, which Wong sees as quite fitting.

"A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is classical and is being distributed classically," Wong says. "It's about an older generation. Princess of Nebraska is about a new generation. It's shot in a very contemporary way. It was very guerrilla style, and we used a lot of cell phone stuff, and it made sense for [the film] to go to the Internet."

Both Wang and Wong hope that the innovative release strategy will provide a bridge across generations and cultures.

Beth Accomando reports for member station KPBS in San Diego.

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