Mr. Shi (Henry O), the lead character in Wayne Wang's new film, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," suffers from the occasional translation problem. Visiting America from China, he interacts with strangers in broken English with surprising ease. But it is in emotional discussions with his daughter that he has trouble communicating.
Adapted from a short story by Yiyun Li, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," which opens Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, follows a widower who has come to America to help his estranged, recently divorced daughter. But while Mr. Shi has come to help facilitate his daughter Yilan's (Faye Yu) next marriage, it quickly becomes clear that her priorities are far different.
Visiting this nondescript Midwestern town from Beijing, Mr. Shi takes to the landscape with enthusiasm, avidly picking up the language and interacting with the locals. He spends his days floating through Yilan's drab apartment and interacting with minor characters nearby. Some of these cameos are more successful than others — watching Mr. Shi interact with Vida Ghahremani's Iranian character without a common language is especially fruitful.
But regardless of who or what he is meeting, Mr. Shi is fascinating to watch. His inquisitive mind, open demeanor, and sweetly stooped posture draw people to him.
Mr. Shi's likability is so complete that it is difficult at first to understand how his daughter could turn away from him so completely. Yilan views her father's presence as a nuisance. She chafes at his attempts to reassert himself in a parental role, yet she cannot bring herself to tell him to leave. Mr. Shi's outdated views on her life and marital prospects are only worsened by what she views as his abject hypocrisy. Father and daughter both have secrets to protect, and they will have to divulge them if they hope to become closer.
As the film quietly delves into the silences and grudges that separate the two characters, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" gains currency.
Mr. Wang, the director of such diverse films as "The Joy Luck Club," "Smoke," and "Maid in Manhattan," uses an introverted approach here to build the momentum of the story slowly. "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" plays in minor chords, but it rewards patient viewers with its sweetly enlightening tale.