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Mr. Shi (Henry O) is a widower and a retired man from Beijing. When his only daughter Yilan (Faye Yu) is divorced, he decides to visit her in Spokane, Washington where she works as a librarian. His intention is to stay with her until he helps her recover from the trauma. But Yilan is not interested in his plan to rescue her marriage and reconstruct her life. Disappointed but not discouraged, Mr. Shi explores the town and meets an old woman, Madam (Vida Ghahremani), who fled the Iranian Revolution. Neither Mr. Shi nor Madam speak English well, but by gesturing and talking in their own tongues, Mr. Shi and Madam start a rare friendship, in which they find momentary haven from the world of lies they have to weave to keep themselves hopeful. Directed by Wayne Wang (Chinese Box, The Joy Luck Club), based on the short story by screenwriter Yiyun Li.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
   by director Wayne Wang

In 1984, my wife and I were married at San Francisco’s City Hall, with only a few very good friends attending as witnesses. We had a small celebration at a vegetarian restaurant that evening, with a dinner of imitation meat dishes that  symbolized good blessings. We didn’t inform either of our parents in Hong Kong, as they would have expected an elaborate banquet with all their relatives and friends.

A few weeks later my father called long distance from Hong Kong.

“Do you have something to tell me and your mother?” he asked.

“No, nothing,” I replied.

He pushed on with his questions and I quickly realized that one of the Hong Kong gossip magazines had probably found out and run a story about our marriage. My wife was a popular actress in Hong Kong in the ‘80s.

My father showed up shortly after our phone conversation. As soon as he arrived, his questions continued, many of them quite personal. We politely deflected as many as we could. During the day, my wife and I went to work and my father was alone in the house.

Over dinner one night, he started asking some more specific probing questions about my money situation. Finally he said, “What makes you think you can afford to get married? You have only $3000 in your bank account.” He obviously had gone through our belongings, even our checkbooks.

“What makes you think you have the right to go through our private things?” I said.

My father defended himself explaining that he will always be my father no matter how old I am and that he had a right to find out what I was hiding from him. I got very angry at him and went on to accuse him of being like the communists during the Cultural Revolution, spying on and betraying innocent people, leading many to wrongful prosecutions.

Twenty-something years later, my father passed away. In reading Yiyun Li’s short story I could finally look at this situation from my father’s perspective. Even though I still don’t condone my father’s actions, I can now understand what my father did through the point of view of Mr. Shi. Arriving in a strange land to an estranged daughter Mr. Shi hasn’t seen in many years, he wants to find out why she broke up her wonderful marriage and begins to peel back layers of his daughter’s life like he takes apart the Russian nesting dolls on her dressing table.

It’s a mystery he feels compelled to solve. A mystery that, when uncovered, reveals both their pasts that they had preferred to bury. Their stories are so intimately and irrevocably linked because they are father and daughter. And neither could escape the legacy of what they went through during the Cultural Revolution.

For many years I have been looking for a way to tell a personal story about the Cultural Revolution. As Mr. Shi says in the film, “It’s enough to have survived it.” I didn’t want to do something too dramatic or anything too direct. I wanted to tell a tale around the peripheral and about the after-effects. Sometimes paring things down, or focusing on the “small details,” gets us closer to the truth.