Through a Lens Darkly
When Actions Don't Speak Louder
We are, as philosophers and anthropologists alike will eagerly remind us, the products of our environments. Yet despite repeated encouragement, we rarely adequately recognize those most responsible for these formative environments, and the profound influence they have exercised upon every aspect of our future lives: our parents.
In A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the Chinese-American director Wayne Wang highlights that underappreciation. Based on the award-winning short story collection of Yiyun Li, the film is a meditative recounting of a retired Chinese scientist's visit to his daughter's home in the United States, and the gradual reconciliation that results as they come to understand the indelible fingerprints he has left on her life.
When Mr. Shi (Henry O) arrives in Spokane to spend a few weeks with his daughter Yilan (Feihong Yu), the ostensible reason for his arrival could hardly be more mundane: he is mesmerized by the idea of the American West, and he plans to explore this wildly improbable nation for as long as his newly-granted leisure will allow. But the true purpose for his journey is significantly less carefree—concerned and mortified by his daughter's recent divorce, he has made the long trek from Beijing in an attempt to forestall the "rebound relationship" she is contemplating, and to confront her over the abandonment of the traditional values he has tried to instill in her from birth.
At first, Yilan is content to hold her father at an emotional distance, glibly dodging his attempts to uncover the details surrounding her failed marriage. But his gentle persistence and unswerving confidence in the correctness of his beliefs proves too much for her. Unwilling to confront the issues he raises, she eventually resorts to physical avoidance, abandoning him to the unfamiliar solitude of her apartment complex and the friendly-but-disinterested nods of its English-speaking residents.
Setting aside his daughter's distance, Shi quickly acclimates to his unfamiliar surroundings. Despite his broken English and humorously inconvenient fascination with Communism (at one point, he proudly boasts to a pair of young Mormon missionaries that "you remind me of myself in 1948, when I was becoming a young Communist") his kindness and genuine interest in others wins him numerous friends—chief among them, an Iranian matron he knows simply as Madam. Her imperfect English is only a temporary impediment to their friends, for the two displaced retirees share a similar suffering: Madam's son, a wealthy young émigré, has abandoned the traditions of his native land as thoroughly and unshakably as has Yilan. This forges a powerful bond between the two wounded parents, but a series of unforeseen circumstances robs Shi of his greatest ally at his moment of greatest need.
Stirred to action by the discovery that Yalin is carrying on an affair with a married Russian professor, her father decides to confront her once again. In the heat of their ensuing argument, Shi is rendered speechless by his daughter's admission that the dissolution of her marriage was a result of her own infidelity rather than her husband's discontent. Even worse, she reveals that her long-festering childhood bitterness over a supposed affair of her father's, combined with his absence during the most formative years of her life, served as justification (and even motivation) for many of her actions.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.