Dir: Wayne Wang. US. 2007. 77mins.
Wayne Wang's The Princess of Nebraska is a stylistically audacious companion piece to the director's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, adapted from the same collection of short stories by expatriate Chinese writer Yiyun Li. Like Blue in the Face, the improvisational variant of his own Smoke that he developed with writer Paul Auster, the second film is more fluid and nervy and features a dynamite lead performance by Chinese actress Ling Li.
Stylistically, the movie echoes Wayne 's independent Chinese films such as Life is Cheap (1989). Shot in just 18 days, the movie is filmed primarily with hand held cameras, capturing the excited and fragmented consciousness of its protagonist.
Cinematically Wang's models are clearly the French New Wave films of Jean-Luc Godard (the movie features poster art from Pierrot le fou) and Hong Kong movies of Wong Kar-wai.
The movie's more urgent and compelling visual style and focus on youth culture makes it a more appealing commercial title than A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. It should attract the attention of niche distributors and certainly recoup its modest production costs in DVD and ancillary sales. Both films are set to have their European premieres at San Sebastian.
Both of Wang's new films open in airports, the setting shifted from the Pacific Northwest of Prayers to the more sexually open and culturally diffuse Bay Area with Princess.
If Prayers is about how China 's nightmarish past is superimposed over the present, Princess explores the moral and personal consequences of the new go-go market economy and consumer culture on the young and impressionable.
Set during a dramatic and incident-packed 24-hour time frame, the story tracks the emotional and personal complications confronting Sasha (Ling), an 18-year-old Chinese college exchange student who is four months pregnant.
The father of her unborn child is a bisexual Beijing Opera performer also linked personally with Boshen (Danforth), a San Francisco activist who provides Sasha with sanctuary during her visit. Impudent and confrontational, Sasha has jettisoned her college studies in Nebraska and arrived in San Francisco to terminate her unwanted pregnancy.
Fleeing from the manipulative Boshen, a man whose motives she constantly questions, Sasha wanders the streets and finds companionship and empathy with X (Chee), a bar hostess and courtesan.
Unlike the adaptation of Prayers, written by Yiyun Li, the credited script for Princess is by Michael Ray. Much of the film feels improvised, for instance the dinner party where Sasha takes umbrage against the cultural presuppositions of the assembled guests. 'You don't know anything about China,' she says. 'You're not even Chinese.' The story is the weakest part of the movie's construction, especially the scenes involving a disgraced African financial analyst, James (Binaisa) who becomes a kind of protectorate for Sasha.
Fortunately, Wang recovers visually, creating a series of striking tableaux that visually approximate the emotional fluctuation and volatility of its young female protagonist.
Working with the talented cinematographer Richard Wong, Wang works in a more liberated style, favouring off-centre framing and vivid colours to locate the visual equivalent of Sasha's sense of impermanence and dislocation.
Like A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, it is a culturally conservative work that ultimately argues in favour of traditional values. It is also a film that poses questions about Wang's own career, pondering the idea that in his own Hollywood assignments such as Maid in Manhattan, he has himself contributed to the make believe that Sasha herself clings to.
The movie is anchored by Ling Li, an 18-year-old native of Shanghai who brings credibility and conviction to an often underwritten or emotionally incoherent character. For all the movie's imperfections, she gives the work a tension and release, suggesting the beginning of a very bright and promising career.
Entertainment FARM, Inc. (Jap)
Center for Asian American Media (US)
The Match Factory (Ger)
Michael Ray, from the short story by Yiyun Li
Patrice Lukulu Binaisa