CHINA GROVE – Wayne Wang has lived a double life as a director of studio film geared towards women (The Joy Luck Club and Maid In Manhattan) and low budget films aimed at the art house (Chan Is Missing and Center of the World). Now he has a double feature in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Princess of Nebraska. The films have just been released as a double feature DVD set by Magnolia Home Entertainment.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers has father (Henry O) flying in from China to visit his daughter (Faye Yu) in Spokane, Washington. The quiet film examines their relationship. Her time in America has changed her attitude towards dad. The Princess of Nebraska is a much more kinetic tale of a young woman (Ling Li) arriving in San Francisco to see the sights with her friend (Brian Danforth). The two lust after the same Beijing based opera singer. The difference is she’s pregnant with the singer’s child. She’s not sure what to do with the baby.
What made Wang tackle both of these films after making The Last Holiday with Queen Latifah and LL Cool J? I asked the question when he called the Party Favors hotline.
“I’d just come off doing a whole series of Hollywood films. I was looking to get back to doing things about Chinese or Chinese Americans. I found this collection of short stories by Yiyun Li (A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: Stories). One of the biggest changes with the Chinese communities here is the influx of immigrants from China. These two stories (dealt with) two women from two slightly different generations from China in America.”
He made A Thousand Years of Good Prayers first. While in the editing room, he embarked upon adapting Li’s “The Princess of Nebraska” short story for the screen. “I wanted them as companion pieces,” Wang said.
“The first one was very difficult to put the money together. It was such a minimalist movie. It doesn’t have the typical drama and no stars. There was a Japanese investor behind me. That’s the only reason why it got done,” Wang said. “In the beginning half the money was supposed to come from China. They backed away from it. There were some lines they wanted censored, but I wouldn’t take them out.”
“I came in slightly under budget on the first one. I was able to convince the distributor, by the time I was editing the film, that for the little money that’s left, I can do Princess of Nebraska. Which is the same thing I did with Smoke and Blue in the Face.”
In America, only A Thousand Years was given a theatrical release. However people who saw the film were informed that they could see The Princess of Nebraska on Youtube. This led to hundreds of thousands of viewers which is more eyeballs than the average art house release. The film is no longer on the site. The combo have played in theaters around the globe.
“The most interesting thing is that did very well in Europe. It was a huge hit in Spain,” Wang said. “In France they distributed both films together. Some times back to back and sometimes in multiplexes in theaters next to each other. The poster was ‘Two Women. Two Chinas. Two Films.’”
This is reminiscent of how Steven Soderbergh released his two films about Che as a double feature. There is a parallel between the careers of Wang and Soderbergh since both directors rose from the indie ranks to become studio directors. Neither director has given up making small films. Soderbergh’s recent digital film The Girlfriend Experience parallels’ Wang’s The Center of the World which was also a digital video film about the relationship between a hooker and a rich client. Soderbergh cleaned up porn star Sasha Grey for The Girlfriend Experience to get an R-rating. Wang got in major hot water with the MPAA, theater owners and prudish reporters for having Alisha Klass perform her lollipop trick on screen.
“The press was completely on my case. I pushed the envelope a little bit,” he admitted.
One of the big surprises of The Center of the World is an appearance by the legendary Pat Morita (Happy Days). How did he get the star of Karate Kid to appear?
“That was a great tribute to him. I heard he was living in Vegas at the time. Most of the film was shot in Vegas. I said, ‘We gotta get Pat Morita and do a cameo.’ He loved it. He played the taxi driver. I’m such a huge fan of Pat Morita,” Wang said.
While both A Thousand Years and Princess were shot on High-Def video, the two movies have completely different looks. A Thousand Years sticks with the 16:9 aspect ratio. Princess is a 2.35:1 scope image.
“I went for scope aspect ratio on a much more smaller consumer type of camera. The DP (Richard Wong) was very young and very brave. We really experimented,” Wang said. “It was kinda crazy to do that because you lose shooting space. The cameras were so sensitive that they looked pretty nice. I loved that scope format. We also blew it up to film. It was great to see it really big.”
By going digital, Wang also shrunk the size of crew needed for the productions.
“A Thousand Years wasn’t really tight. There were about 20 people most of the time. The second one (Princess) was really small. Probably less than people. Sometimes there were five or six people. I really enjoyed working that way. There was whole sequence shot inside a mall. That was all done on the fly with the cameraman, the soundman and myself hiding some where. It’s a really interesting way to work,” Wang said. “You can get things done that way if you pick the right location with the right lighting. You don’t have to do a whole lot. You do a Hollywood movie, every extra is a SAG member. The whole place has to be lit. It’s a whole different game.”
The question arises how he manages to balance his desires with the marketplace.
“That’s the tough one. What’s sad about the marketplace is that basically these $150 million special effect event films exist,” Wang said. “There are these smaller budget films, but they have to be special, authentic and commercial to survive. I’m more interested in those more personal smaller films, but it’s getting harder and harder.”
Plenty of directors talk about how they immediately envision the actress while reading the story. How far into A Thousand Years did Wang imagine Faye Yu in the lead?
“It took me a while,” he said. “I was trying to cast somebody from here and I was having a little trouble. It wasn’t until my assistant director on this one, who was also my assistant director on Joy Luck Club, she said, ‘Do you remember Faye?’ Faye after the Joy Luck Club spent time in L.A., learned English and moved back to China. I said, ‘Let’s call her and see how her English is.’ I wanted the daughter to have pretty good English since she’s been here for ten years. I called Faye on the phone. Her English was just fine. I immediately decided on her.”
However Faye had bigger plans since she was in pre-production of her directorial debut.
“I had to convince her to take a break from that and do the film. Which she did. I’m glad she did,” he said.
How did it feel knowing that he’d brought Yu to Spokane, Washington for a small film while she was preparing to direct a large budget special effects film in China?
“It was a little strange,” Wang said. “She never really talked about her film. She just came and worked as an actress.”
The big question is what made him choose Spokane, Washington for the location of A Thousand Years?
“I found out that there was company there that does a lot of genre films and can work really cheaply,” he said. “They were very competent. I felt Spokane was a classic midwestern American city. It’s a little bit nondescript which I like. The story could happen anywhere in America. I also found these massive village-like apartment housing complexes. All those things played into it.”
The conversation turned to how the director on a major motion picture is like a magician. He merely as to ask for something and a crew member makes it appears. This isn’t true on an extremely small crew shoot.
“I feel a little spoiled. On something like Maid in Manhattan, if I wanted a pink elephant to walk through, it would appear in ten minutes. I wouldn’t know the politics and the rigamarole that people went through to get it. On something like Princess of Nebraska, I knew every little problem.” He learned fast when Ling Li changed into her costume in the mall bathroom. The undercover security cops pounced on the crew thinking they were part of a shoplifting ring.
At no point while making The Joy Luck Club did he have to deal with mall security. What has been the impact of the film on his career?
“I’m really happy that it’s the only Chinese-American film that crossed over to a very broad audience. It’s accessible on DVD and TV, a lot have people have seen. Because of that, I’ve been able to work in Hollywood a little bit. It has helped me make some money and studio movies. I also got caught up in that world a bit. I now appreciate the independent side again. Everything is two sided,” he said.
“If I do a studio film, I’ll do a studio film. I want to entertain. If I do an independent film, I want to make sure that I’m really independent. I’ll make choices that are personal and specific rather than saying, ‘I got to make this more accessible.’ If you look at these two films, I made difficult choices. I thought they were right and more authentic for the film. I didn’t call up a producer or studio person to ask, ‘Can I do this?’
What are the odds that he could have ever received backing by a major studio to make The Princess of Nebraska?
“There is no way. The way it is shot, the lead character, what she goes through…all of that would be something very difficult to go through.”
While he was shooting Princess, Juno was catching box office fever. How did he think the Oscar winning film treated same subject matter?
“I thought Juno was too easy of a film. Too easy to like. It is a well made film and easy to like. Princess doesn’t give you anything. It gets inside this woman to see what she’s going through, what decisions she’s has to make and what troubles she got herself. Those are the issues that pregnancy and abortion really bring up,” he said.
His early films are coming out on DVD, but he’s tweaking them on his home computer.
“I’m bad. On the films that I own myself, I’ve pretty much gone into all of them and recut them. Chan is Missing and Dim Sum were recently recut and redigitized high def in Europe. The ones that I own and have access to the original material, I’ve been able to do that. I’m bad. At two o’clock in the morning I’m recutting these movies. But it’s fun.”
Faye Yu (who also goes by Feihong Yu) was introduced to American audiences in The Joy Luck Club. Nearly fifteen years later, she reunited with director Wayne Wang for the larger role of Yilan in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.
“When he tapped me for The Joy Luck Club, I was only a film student at the Beijing Film Academy. I met him out of the blue. It wasn’t really casting. I was doing my summer vacation in Shanghai. He was location scouting. I just ran into him. He thought I would be good for the role of Ying Ying, the younger mother back in the ’40s.”
There was a minor complication in her casting. While her scenes took place in China, they were being filmed in San Francisco. She had to leave her country.
“I was 19 years old. I’d never been out of the country. At that time it was very hard for me to get a visa. It took them three months.” The studio had to use plenty of political connections to make bring her to America. “By the time I got to San Francisco, they had been shooting for a month. They whole production was waiting for me.”
Wang was devoted in getting her to play the role. He could have gone with a second choice, but he stuck it out for her arrival.
“I really appreciated it,” she said. “Prior to that, I only met him once. In the Chinese way, we think it is a fate that brought us together. Interestingly I didn’t speak English at the time. I had an assistant to take care of me and translate for me.”
She didn’t immediately go Hollywood after her first major role.
“After The Joy Luck Club, I went back to Beijing to finish my school. I graduated and did two projects. I came to Los Angeles and tried to learn English. Then I went back (to China) again.
She taught at the Beijing Film Academy while continuing her acting career.
“By the time he called me up for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, I was preparing my directorial debut. Out of the blue he called me up and thought I’d be proper for the role in A Thousand Years. My pre-production was busy. He said, ‘I only need four weeks. Can you take that time?’ At the time we were doing the artwork and design. I kind of managed to leave for four weeks to do the movie. That turned out to be a blast,” she said. “I have grown up in both in a personal way and professional way. He saw the changes in me and he really liked it.”
The small nature of the film allowed the actors a chance to really feel the material and the characters.
“We had a reading and we did everything in the script. On set he changed everything,” she said. “He had new ideas come out. We would leave the script and do things spontaneously. We had everything planned, but do something that we feel on set.
Henry O plays her father who is staying in her apartment in Spokane. O is best known for being one of the Buddhist monks on The Sopranos. He also has appeared in Rush Hour 3, Shanghai Noon and The Last Emperor. How did Yu react to her co-star?
“I immediately felt a bond with him as soon as I got on set. He’s very nice, lovely guy. He’s a very typical Chinese father type. He’s humble and polite. He doesn’t talk that much. He holds all his feelings to himself.
“Chinese parents express themselves much verbally. Within my family my father and mother never say, “I love you, baby.” We don’t say love the word that easily. But you can feel it in every way. The way they treat you shows how much they love you. I live in Beijing and my parents live in Hangzhou which is near Shanghai. Whenever I go visit them, my mother cooks and cooks as much as she can. She just wants to feed me. That’s just the way she shows her love. They feel like there’s nothing they can do more since you’ve grown up. We don’t much like hugging or saying ‘Love you so much.” You see it in their gesture. I can relate to this movie. The father and daughter have conflicts, but the love is mutual. No matter how far you go, no matter how many conflicts you have or conflict differences, you are always their baby.”
O has the supreme look of concern when his daughter doesn’t return as scheduled.
“In the film, the father has to know where she goes, who she sees and why she comes back late. The Americans wouldn’t understand it. In the Chinese way, the parents always think you’re a baby. You can grow up to 60 years old and you’re still a baby to them.”
Her time spent in Los Angeles learning English allowed her tap into the character who is living between two mindsets.
“All that experience helped a lot for me to play that character,” Yu said. “I can understand both cultures and understand the differences. That helped me to play a character caught in the middle of this conflict.”
Yu finds a deep truth in Yilan’s character when it comes to speaking English for what can’t get said in Chinese.
“She never learned to express her feelings in her own language because of the culture. Unlike the character, I’m very close to my parents. But we don’t express much of our personal feelings to each other,” she said. “I don’t talk to my parents about being in love with this one or broke up with this one. It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. So the character in the movie said that she learned feeling to express in English. I do feel that a little bit.”
She also found that there’s other things she can express only in English.
“I never curse in Chinese,” she said. “When I curse in English, I don’t feel like it’s a curse. I say it with more feeling, even dirty words. If I say the f-word in Chinese, it wouldn’t be proper for me. But when I say the f-word in English, I don’t feel that strange.”
What did the actress feel about her month in Spokane? “Spokane is different from L.A. It makes you think back to the early days of America.” Was there a Chinese community in the city? “We were able to find a couple Chinese restaurants, but we didn’t see a large Chinese population there.
Yu returned to China in time to start production of her film.
“I just finished the post-production and it’s going to be released in August in China. It’s called Eternal Beloved. That’s the English title, but it’ll be different in Chinese. It’s an epic love story about two young people, reincarnation, loves in previous lives and after life.
Her time with Wayne Wang has proven to be helpful in giving her tools to work on a set.
“His input influenced me a lot,” Yu said. “I’m really glad that I had a time to come out and do that film with him prior to my directing job. His concentration, his way of directing and communicating with actors and film crews was sort of a pre-education thing for me. He’s almost a mentor to me. When I came back to China to do the film, I remembered how he did that work.”
One of the curious elements of the film is how short the names above the title are with O and Yu as the stars. “We have easy last names,” she said.
She’s not related to Ronnie Yu, the director of Bride with White Hair and Bride of Chucky. Do people in China wonder about them being related?
“It’s pronounced the same, but we have different characters. My Yu is quite rare,” she declared.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayer and The Princess of Nebraska are currently available as double DVD set from Magnolia Home Entertainment.
Augie snuck into a preview screening of Judd Apatow’s Funny People. He’s still in complete shock from the ending. “Forget the James Brooks B.S.,” Augie declared. “This is Judd Apatow’s version of celebrity Straw Dogs.” According to Augie, Adam Sandler steals Eric Bana’s wife and whisks her away to his Malibu mansion. Bana goes completely nuts at her dumping him and the kids to be the rich comic actor’s newest conquest. He breaks out his hunting rifles and takes a moonlight drive up the coast. While Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” plays, Bana rams his car into the double door of Sandler’s mansion and ventilates Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill while they’re playing wii tennis. Then he goes into the bedroom and takes out Sandler and his wife while they’re having sex. Sandler’s brains splash across a portrait of Paul Lynde dressed as an angel. Finally Bana puts the shotgun under his chin, says, “Domo arigato misuta Robotto” and pulls the trigger. Cut to black. Augie said the audience went nuts.
I’m jacked up at seeing this showbiz carnage.
Revolutionary Road Blu-ray reunites the Titanic lovers of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. For those who pondered what would happen if Jack hadn’t frozen to death in the Atlantic; the answer is he’d be frozen to death in suburbia. In the ’50s, the couple seem to be madly in love with each other in New York City. They decide they want to start a family so they buy the house within commuting distance. The new life with the lawn and kids destroys their relationship. They plot an escape to Paris. But can they really pull it off? The film takes us to the era of Mad Men. You almost expect to see Don Draper on Leo’s train. Kate taps deep into the frustrated housewife. The 1080p transfer is spectacular. The little details of the time shimmer on the screen with the extra details including the richness of the wood grain in the kitchen cabinets. The bonus features include a commentary track from director Sam Mendes. There’s a swinger strange about a husband talking while his wife is groping Leo. “Lives of Quiet Desperation” covers the behind the scenes action. “The Wages of Truth” gives the background of novelist Richard Yates. There’s almost half an hour of deleted scenes. Revolutionary Road is one of those classy films that will gain in importance over the decade.
Cannon Season Two, Volume One brings back my favorite TV private eye in the heavyweight class. Frank Cannon (William Conrad) is an ex-cop who likes the good life. He’s not a snob. He merely has a complete bar with beer taps in his living room. This second season has him once again putting his life on the line for clients. Fans of Battlestar Galactica will get a kick out of seeing an extremely young Richard Hatch on “Sky Above, Death Below.” “Bitter Legion” has Lloyd Bochner plotting the robbery of the L.A. Coliseum with a group of unemployed Vietnam war vets. In a really bad casting move, Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees plays one of the vets. He keeps doing his James Cagney impersonation. It’s understandable why he found a career in doing voices for animation. Jessica Walters (Arrested Development) stars in “That Was No Lady.” She’s a high profile lawyer who needs to lay low after she’s marked for death for representing hoodlums who robbed a charity. “The Predators” features Robert Pine as a deputy sheriff in the middle of human trafficking. Robert Pine is now known as the daddy of Captain Kirk. “The Rip Off” opens with Cannon’s entire apartment being swiped by George Mahris (Route 66). It’s a fun dozen cases for Cannon whose hunches are almost as big as his gut.
Perry Mason: Season 4, Volume 1 keeps up the quality court cases for America’s most successful lawyer. Mason (Raymond Burr) doesn’t sweat in court. He knows more than his clients about the truth that will set them free. “The Case of the Treacherous Toupee” makes a suspect out of Robert Redford. The case itself has Perry looking for a second toupee to nail the killer. Good thing William Shatner wasn’t around. “The Case of the Clumsy Clown” involves bigamy and big cat attacks beneath the Big Top. Perry is brought in to defend a clown who is accused of killing a co-owner of the circus by shooting him during the show. This might be the reason why kids are frightened of clowns. “The Case of the Provocative Protege” sticks us with a concert pianist with a destroyed hand. His empire is falling apart. He can’t allow his talented student to become a casino act. It’s too much and his car goes over a cliff. Everyone declares it a suicide. But a shifty character swears it was murder. Perry has to get to the truth. “The Case of the Envious Editor” could be torn from today’s headlines. A publishing company is going down the tubes so the new CEO wants to change the style of the rags. The old editors go nuts. Somebody goes completely nuts and kills to new CEO. Remember to watch from the start since the new CEO is James Coburn (In Like Flint). The 4 DVD set gives us 16 cases that keep up the top notch whodunit action.
The Cleaner is A&E’s dramatic extension into the world of their hit Intervention reality series. This has nothing to do with the movie starring Cedric the Entertainer. Benjamin Bratt dishes out intense rehab. He’s on a mission from God to help clean up the souls of the fallen. He doesn’t do it by himself. He has a team that helps him bring messed up folks to rehab including Grace Park. Finally you can see Boomer from Battlestar Galactica without wondering which cylon is she. He also has to balance his devotion to curing with raising a family. His daughter is played by Lilana Mumy who looks so much like her dad, Lost In Space’s Billy Mumy. Bratt is perfectly cast in the role since he seems like a guy who would coerce you into refusing a free drink. Although if I need a case of extreme interventionism to bust my Suduko habit, let it be Grace Parks that tempts me with the light of clarity. There’s 13 episodes on 4 DVDs. The bonus features include deleted scenes and a gag reel. Although there’s no gag reel footage of people gagging while detoxing.
We’ve got two contests this week. Do you feel luck? Well do you?
CBS DVD has given us 5 copies of Cannon Season Two, Volume One to give to very special Party Favors readers. In order to win, answer this question: How tall was William Conrad when he played Frank Cannon? Send your answer, name and address to email@example.com. Put “Cannon” in the subject.
CBS DVD has also given us 5 copies of Perry Mason: Season 4, Volume 1 to give to very special Party Favors readers. In order to win, answer this question: How tall was Raymond Burr when he was Perry Mason? Send your answer, name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “Perry Mason” in the subject.
Family, friends, people who flunked the bar are not eligible to win.
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