Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

At the recent Film Festival, director Wayne Wang (he of the Joy Luck Club film adaptation) was in town with two of his movies and I caught 'A Thousand Years of Good Prayers'. It was well, somewhat stereotypical. The film, revolving around a Chinese man's visit to his divorced daughter in America, is based on a short story by Li Yuyun. Li had arrived in the US to do a postgraduate degree in immunology, and according to Wayne Wang, had taken some writing courses at the university and ended up winning the 2005 Frank O' Connor International Short Story Award for one of the short stories in her collection.

I was wandering around the library at work the other day - one of the perks of the job, besides being able to occasionally work from home is that I have this great library at my disposal, as well as the ability to borrow forty books - when I came across the Li Yuyun collection. Despite some reservations from the movie screening, I picked it up. And I've so far read three of the stories and I must say that it's hooked me.

I expected most of the stories to be similar to A Thousand Years, that is, of Chinese immigrants in the US. But so far, the rest of the stories have been about life in China. I read of an old woman who is recently retrenched from a government factory and encouraged by a friend to marry an old man. His sons interviewed her and a week later, she moves into the house, only to find out that the old man has Alzheimer's.

I couldn't help but quickly turn to A Thousand Years, located towards the end of the collection. I read it through quickly. And as I finished it, I recalled what an audience member had asked at the Q&A session with Wayne Wang. Something along the lines of, the Russian dolls were not a feature in the book, so why was it included in the film? Wang insisted that it's in the book. But I just looked - it isn't. He should've left it out of the movie, along with the Russian music. They made for rather jarring, too obvious clues placed in the movie. It was as if he wanted to make doubly sure the audience would know that the daughter's friend was Russian.

The short story, while not as interesting as the others in the collection, was more subtle. It explained the "Thousand Years of Prayers" better, such as in this paragraph:

"We're the only family for each other now," Mr Shi says, almost pleading, but his daughter closes her bedroom door before he says more. Mr Shi looks at the dishes that are barely touched by his daughter, the fried tofu cubes stuffed with chopped mushrooms, shrimps and ginger, the collage of bamboo shoots, red peppers and snow peas. Even though his daughter admires his cooking every evening, he senses the halfheartedness in her praise; she does not know the cooking has become his praying, and she leaves the prayers unanswered.

That one part of the story spoke volumes, but it was entirely missing from the movie. Sure, it's a little bit 'Eat Drink Man Woman', a movie which I could watch over and over again (and er, kinda have). If I remember correctly, Wayne Wang said that the movie script was written by Li herself. So it makes me wonder if these details were something she put in, or was it the director?


dimsumdolly said...

I didn't watch the film but it's a pity they left that part out. It's a simple and short paragraph, but a poignant one nonetheless even when reading it out of context.

kyutie said...

Hi! How have you been doing lately? I have been reading your blog for almost a month now, you are such a good writer keep it up! Also, I have never watched that film... But it sounds pretty interesting (bi-culture ). Keep on writing!

Take care,

olduvai said...

On hindsight, I shouldn't have put "entirely missing". I think the nuances of the paragraph were missing. Yes, the father did cook for her, and she didn't really eat very much of it, but I think the feeling I got from reading the story, from reading the paragraph, it wasn't conveyed in the film.