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  • Interview: Director Wayne Wang and Actor Henry O

    Tue, 16 Sep 2008 15:52:08

    Interview: Director Wayne Wang and Actor Henry O - The director and lead of <i>A Thousand Years of Good Prayers</i> talk about making a personal film with emotional resonance

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    Wanye Wang, a director who is the epitome of the independent filmmaker, recently returned to his roots with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. The helmsman behind such influential films about the Chinese experience in America like Chan is Missing and The Joy Luck Club has eschewed studio films for the moment to get back to making the personal movies for which he’s known, work that feeds his soul and hopefully his audience’s as well.

    He’s joined in this outing by two wonderful Chinese actors, Henry O and Feihong Yu, and they play an estranged father and daughter who have let time and circumstance drive a wedge between them. I sat down with Wayne and Henry and found them as ingratiating and earnest as the film which they’ve just finished.

    Where did you get the story for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers?

    Wayne Wang: It was based on a short story by a writer named Yiyun Li who’s from China, but she now lives and teaches in the Bay Area at Mills College. It’s pretty faithful to her story, and obviously Henry has similar resonances about this story, and I have my own, too. I identify with the daughter; he identifies with the father.

    What about the minor characters in the film like the Mormon Missionaries, the sunbather, the apartment manager, et cetera?

    WW: They were not in the short story. The story was only three characters. Interestingly enough, all the side characters were created and enhanced as we worked in Spokane. Spokane doesn’t have a lot of professional actors, so I asked the casting person to bring me interesting, real people. Like, for example, the two Mormons were real Mormons. The more we looked at actors for those roles we realized they just don’t have the commitment and the spirit of real Mormons. And everyone else like the young blonde sunbather who was a forensic scientist that couldn’t get a job; she came in to audition and said, “I just finished my degree in forensic science, but I can’t find a job. There aren’t enough dead bodies in Spokane, so I can’t get work.”

    She should move to L.A.

    WW: Yes. Sometimes the scenes were already written, and sometimes the scenes were developed there. But those parts are all real people. For example, the manager was the real manager of the apartment we were filming in. He came up to me one day and said, “I used to work for the CIA.” I thought, "Oh, shit, we’re in big trouble here, he’ll know everything that we do." But he had this great sense of humor about his kids and I ended up putting him in the movie.

    Was the short story set in Spokane, or did you specifically choose to shoot there?

    WW: The short story was set in Iowa where Yiyun Li studied with the Writer’s Workshop. But when we spoke with Yiyun Li, she said she really wrote it for any Middle American city. Not the big cities, but somewhere in Middle America. And Spokane was just like that; kind of nondescript. The Northwest of the country is actually really beautiful. Henry lived near Seattle, but I hadn’t spent much time in the Northwest, and I really came to love it. But what’s interesting is there’s a production company there called North by Northwest that makes genre slasher movies. And the owner of that is actually an art film and independent film lover. He read our script and said, "I’ll help you make this movie as low budget as we can."

    What was the budget?

    WW: About a million and a half.

    What time of year did you film?

    WW: We filmed late summer into the fall. By the time we left it was starting to get cold. Spokane is very close to Idaho. There’s one scene actually filmed in Idaho, the scene where Henry’s sitting with his daughter at the lake. Idaho’s only twenty minutes away.

    Henry, English isn’t your first language. Was it difficult learning English or coming to America to act?

    Henry O: Yes, I have difficulties in terms of language. I was brought up in missionary schools run by American missionaries before the open door policy. I didn’t use any English for thirty years. My English was school English, so when I come here, I don’t even understand what the T.V. is saying; I watch the captions. So sometimes when I have problems with my insurance, I have my daughter call them. I cannot express myself to them.

    Can she call for me, too? I have the same communication problems with my insurance company.

    HO: So, this is a new country, a new language, a new culture. But I think the best thing is that American people are so loving, so understanding. They are very excusing people. They will excuse and pardon people. Americans are very hospitable and very nice. And acting is much different in China. For instance, we don’t have residuals. We don’t have pensions. I get pension from the Screen Actors Guild. In China, they don’t have open auditions.

    WW: You get assigned roles.

    HO: Yes. You have to negotiate with them and make yourself known to directors and producers and use different ways to approach them. Everything is not so open; things are in the dark. But most of all, I think working in American films is very interesting because as an industry it is very sophisticated and has such a broad range of genres. We have big budget films, independent films like this one. And when I worked with Wayne, I learned a lot.

    WW: I was brought up by Irish Jesuits in a British colony, so my English was very formal. But what was interesting was that when I came to America, I learned to be freer with my English. After my father came over, when we would argue, I would switch to English because I could express myself so much easier. And that’s the same thing that Yiyun writes about. She also talks about how politically she’s freed when she writes in English. Somehow she doesn’t feel like there’s censorship over her head.

    Since Yiyun’s story was written in English, what was your motivation for filming so much of the interactions between Henry and his daughter in Mandarin?

    WW: As characters in the movie, I think they need to speak their own language with each other rather than English because I would never speak English with my father. Unless, like I said, I was arguing with him. And both of them actually spoke very precise Beijing Mandarin, which was very important.

    Henry, did you have any trouble with the English spoken parts of the film since English is not your first language?

    HO: I don’t have difficulty using Chinese to express myself, but I do have difficulty expressing myself in English, so I’m a lot like that character. But I discovered an interesting phenomenon during the shooting: when the lines are in Chinese, I always overact. And Wayne would say, "You don’t have to say things so melodramatically." But when I acted in English, I was much better. I figured out that my stage experience was making things difficult because when I spoke in Chinese, I used stage level.

    WW: That was definitely true. Whenever he spoke Chinese he fell back into stage acting and was much more melodramatic, so he was always toning it down. But if you understand Chinese and you hear Henry speak in Chinese, it’s so beautiful and elegant. He came to America when he was older, so the English wasn’t much of a change for him. I think for him, Chinese is still a better language to act in, when he doesn’t fall into the stage melodrama.

    HO: When I told my daughter about this, she said, “You didn’t know that? Even in everyday life, you are so melodramatic!”

    You really allow your scenes to breathe and develop. Did you make a conscious decision to take your time with these shots?

    WW: You know, time really is a big issue—the time to give an audience time to look at something, to have time to really savor something. In America, we’re always rushing rushing rushing—rushing into McDonalds, rushing into a meeting, our publicist will rush through the door any minute to take us to our next meeting. This film premiered at the San Sebastian Film Festival, and the festival took me out to dinner afterwards at ten o’clock at night for a four hour dinner. At the beginning I was very impatient, and I was thinking, “Let’s get this over with.” But slowly I realized it was a ritual, and you’re supposed to take your time. I learned over the years that I just can’t go on this American pace anymore. That’s why this film deals with time, taking your time and taking your breath, too.

    Does it bother you that the trailer makes your film look much faster paced?

    SWW: Trailers do a different thing. I think if you cut a trailer where nothing happens, you’ll be in trouble. At least it will get people in the theater, and hopefully you will write about it and say you have to be patient with this film because it takes its own time. When Magnolia cut the trailer, they said, “Nothing happens in this movie—there’s nothing we can cut!”

    Not everything has to be an MTV video.

    WW: Exactly.

    Henry’s character Mr. Shi spends a great deal of the movie trying to impart wisdom to his daughter. How does wisdom pass down the generations in the Chinese culture?

    WW: It seems like Mr. Shi does have a lot a wisdom that he tries to communicate to the daughter, but she’s interested in other things. She doesn’t have the time to deal with it.

    HO: When I was a kid, we studied Confucius’ writing, all those old sages. I had an uncle who is a Chinese scholar who hired a very famous teacher to come to his home. My uncle had all the relatives bring their kids so that he could tutor us. So most people my age are more or less affected by those ancient teachings. Sometimes those teachings are valuable and good. I think Mr. Shi is influenced by old traditions, the Communist teachings as well. But he’s complex because he lost his job for something that he didn’t do. He is depressed; he shut himself away. He is still wise, but he can not agree with his daughter about her divorce. Later in the film he is wise enough to understand that nothing could be done, and he has to accept the reality and try to understand her in the future.

    WW: I find very interesting the example that Yiyun explained to me that if your kids have a divorce, you would treat it as an illness. That they are sick and weak. So Mr. Shi was always giving his daughter food to nourish her back to health so that she can deal with her problems. That’s quite interesting to me, and it’s quite wise. Whether you realize that’s what he’s doing when you watch it or not, you get it by osmosis. Every time I watch the film, I find that quite interesting.

    Why did Henry wait so long to start acting?

    WW: He was a theater actor for thirty years. Also, it’s very difficult to get roles as a Chinese. He’s been pretty lucky and played a lot of different roles.

    HO: I am lucky, but I think I’m going to get less and less because they need fathers, they don’t need grandfathers.

    Wayne, what made you return to more independent fare?

    WW: More money. Ha! No, I got caught up, I made Maid in Manhattan, and I was offered [Because of] Winn-Dixie which is a children’s book that I love. And then even before I finished that, I got into Last Holiday, and after Last Holiday really didn’t do that well—which I blame Paramount for because they had a change in administration and then didn’t care about the movie—I had a break and I realized that I haven’t been doing my personal films. So I found this short story and that was that. And because we did this film for such a low budget, and I had really good support from Entertainment Farm who believed in what I was going to do creatively, I was able to make all the decisions I wanted to make. That made a big difference. If it had been an American company, they would say, “Can we have less subtitles? Can we have them speak more English? Can we make Henry younger?” But I really got to shoot the film that I wanted to make.

    —Jacob J. Mauldin

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    Tags: Wayne Wang, Henry O, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

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