AC 29 (1) pp. 63–79 Intellect Limited 2018
Volume 29 Number 1
© 2018 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/ac.29.1.63_1
The University of Hong Kong
Wang was missing:
Rediscovering Wayne Wang’s
Wayne Wang (1949–present) occupies a unique position among Chinese American
directors working in the United States as he has enjoyed a long and productive
career spanning more than 30 years. Unlike most filmmakers, Wang has moved
back and forth between independent filmmaking with experimental characteristics
and mainstream commercial Hollywood productions. After early success with his
pioneering Chinese American film Chan is Missing (Wang, 1982), audiences and
film critics were wondering what happened to the ‘independent’ after a string of
several commercial Hollywood films during the early 2000s. In 2007 and 2008,
Wang returned to independent film production with A Thousand Years of Good
Prayers (2007) and even formal experimentation in The Princess of Nebraska
(2008). Both films benefit from violations of mainstream Hollywood film form in
the areas of editing, subtitling, camera, mise-en-scène and narrative. Wang could
realize these projects through innovative financing using the strategy of shadow
film and pioneering new approaches to distribution by premiering The Princess of
Nebraska on YouTube.
Asian American film
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64 Asian Cinema
1. All box-office figures
are taken from
In 1991, summarizing the previous twenty years of Asian American filmmak-
ing, Renee Tajima saw Wayne Wang at the forefront of a small group of Asian
American directors that ‘have begun to chip away at the glass ceiling’ which
had restricted Asian American filmmakers to small budget niche films: ‘His
work bears a distinct, personal signature – visually stylized, a wry intellect,
stronger on concept than in narrative – but he is rarely predictable’ (Tajima
1991: 30). Indeed, Wang’s seminal feature Chan is Missing (1982) was not
just a landmark in Asian American film history but, as Peter Feng argued in
1996, made a significant contribution to the formation of Asian American
subjectivity itself. By demonstrating the conceptual impossibility of a fixed
Chinese American identity, the film opened the possibility of becoming Asian
American as a political act (Feng 1996). Wang followed up his early success
with two more independent films set in the Chinese American community,
Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) and Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), which further
examined issues of cultural migration and the fragmentation of Chinese
American identities. Both films garnered mostly favourable reviews but failed
at the box office (Tziumakis 2012: 71) in contrast to the ultra-low budget Chan
is Missing, which became a word-of-mouth success and grossed an astound-
ing $1,000,000 (Levy 1999: 516).
Since then, many critics have lamented Wang’s failure to deliver upon the
promise of his early films. For example, critic Hua Hsu has stated in his aptly
titled 2006 essay ‘Wayne Wang is missing: The vanished promise of his early
films’, ‘to many, Wang’s journey from Chan […] to his current projects seems
puzzling’ (Hsu 2006: n.pag.). Hsu came to this assessment by looking at
Wang’s foray into Hollywood studio filmmaking such as Maid in Manhattan
(Wang, 2002), Because of Winn-Dixie (Wang, 2005), Last Holiday (Wang, 2006)
and comparing them to the benchmark of his early independent films. Hsu
came to this conclusion just before the two low budget and independent
films A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Wang, 2007) and Princess of Nebraska
(Wang, 2008) were released. In my view, they lived up to the promise that
Tajima saw in Wang in 1991. The value of both films – and this holds more
true for Princess of Nebraska and somewhat less for A Thousand Years of
Good Prayers – lies precisely in their deliberate suspension of mainstream
Hollywood film form. One could argue that Wang did not get lost during his
detour of commercial Hollywood filmmaking, but that this diversion might
have contributed in inspiring the formal experimentation present in those
Wang’s very first feature, the ultra-low budget A Man, a Woman, and
a Killer (Wang and Schmidt, 1975) had no connection to Chinese or Asian
American themes at all. It was not released in the United States despite some
recognition at film festivals in Europe (Ferncase 1996: 30–31). After Chan and
Dim Sum, Wang made Slam Dance in 1987, an attempt at film noir, specifically
to avoid being typecast as an Asian American director limited to films about
his community. The effort failed completely as the film was a commercial and
critical disaster (Allon et al. 2002: 556).
Tajima’s prediction that Wang would be the first Chinese American
director to cross over into the mainstream finally became true when Joy
Luck Club (Wang, 1993) became a box-office hit, which grossed in excess
of $30 million, just two years before Ang Lee’s first international hit Sense
and Sensibility (1995).1 In 1995, Wang followed up with the even bigger
independent hit Smoke, which won him a Silver Bear at the 45th Berlin
International Film Festival among several accolades. The episodic film
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Wang was missing
about the patrons of a tobacco shop in Brooklyn was a collaboration with
bestselling author Paul Auster, produced by the Weinstein brothers and
released by Miramax, which dominated the US independent film market
at the time. Starting with the moderately successful coming-of-age comedy
Anywhere But Here (1999), Wang made a series of studio films with no Asian
American connections, some of which were commercially very successful
such as Maid in Manhattan with an international box office of more than
$150 million while others barely broke even as for example the Queen
Latifah vehicle Last Holiday. Of course, Wang never reached the consist-
ent box office prowess of Ang Lee, which – be it by design or by accident –
resulted in the most distinguishing aspect of Wang’s career. Unlike any
Chinese American and like very few American directors of any ethnicity,
he moved between mainstream large budget studio productions, smaller
budget commercial and art house films and low budget independent films
for a period of more than 30 years, which gives him the distinction of being
the director of Chinese descent with the longest active career in the United
States so far.
Wang explained his return to independent filmmaking in 2007 as a stra-
The industry can really box you in, so you try to break the patterns […]
I felt I should go back to something smaller, more personal, some-
thing about the Chinese-American community […] Walking around
Chinatown now, you feel how the community has changed, which has
to do with the new immigrants and how China has changed.
(Lim 2008: n.pag.)
This statement implied two important components about his motivation. First,
the Chinese American community had changed substantially in contrast to
the time of Wang’s earlier films of the 1980s, which compelled him to return
to the subject. Second, Wang refers to the limitation of studio film produc-
tion, implying that a film that would be personal to him about the Chinese
American community could only be realized as a small budget and indepen-
dently produced film, which sheds some light on constraints under which
contemporary Chinese American directors or minority directors in general
have to work.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Princess of Nebraska are based on
short stories by Chinese American author Yiyun Li. Like Wang, she came to
the Unites States to study at medical school. While Wang abandoned the plan
and studied film and television at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Li
completed a graduate degree in immunology before turning to an MA in crea-
tive writing (Li 2014). They are, however of two different generations. While
Hong Kong-born Wang arrived in the United States during the Cold War and
just before the height of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, Li grew up in
Beijing and immigrated three decades later during a transformational time for
China and its relation to the West. Thus, Li’s short stories provided Wang with
a narrative about recent Chinese migrant experiences to the United States.
Nevertheless, she was offering with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers a short
story to which he could personally relate (‘In an odd way, I’m like Yilan in
the film!’ [Eguchi 2009]) as he saw some parallels to the relationship to his
own father and had similar experiences as Yilan during his father’s visit in the
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66 Asian Cinema
2. Two examples of
would be Na’vi in
Avatar (Cameron, 2009)
or Valyrian in Game of
According to Wang, it was difficult to line up financing for A Thousand
Years of Good Prayers:
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
Interestingly, originally the film should have received funding from China, which
fell through because of required changes to the script (Corey n.d.). The financ-
ing of Princess of Nebraska, on the other hand, was a by-product of the first film:
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 addition, the Center for Asian American Media Collaboration in San
Francisco got involved as a co-producer. The difficulty in procuring financing for
both films demonstrates that funding film productions with Chinese American
narratives remains challenging even for an established director with a proven
track record of commercially successful mainstream and independent films.
LANGUAGE, Mise-en-scène AND ISOLATION IN A ThousAnd
YeArs of Good prAYers
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is the story of Yilan and her father Mr. Shi,
who is visiting his daughter in Spokane, Washington. They have not seen each
other in twelve years. Mr Shi is concerned that his daughter is single after
having divorced her Chinese husband who moved back to Beijing. During the
days when Yilan is at work, Mr Shi meets an Iranian lady who is living with
The use of languages other than English is crucial to the meaning in both A
Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Princess of Nebraska. The choice of language
in film is not neutral, but it is loaded with ideological and political meanings,
particularly in Hollywood. It is telling that in big budget production the exten-
sive use of subtitled languages other than English is more likely to be granted
to fictional languages than to minority languages spoken in the United States
or foreign languages.2 Villains are another common exception where foreign
languages are sometimes used in big budget Hollywood productions to further
amplify their otherness. Even in independent US productions the use of subti-
tled foreign languages is the exception including most independent films of
Wayne Wang. This is different for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Princess
of Nebraska as Putonghua is the dominant language in both films. This shift
alone indicates a different era of Chinese-language filmmaking in the United
States in which Chinese asserts itself naturally alongside or instead of English.
While Wang used Chinese in his previous films such as Chan is Missing, Eat
a Bowl of Tea or Joy Luck Club, the Chinese language was reserved to specific
characters to indicate their recent arrival (e.g. Chan is Missing) or it was used
in segments that took place in China (e.g. Eat a Bowl of Tea). By contrast, in
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Wang was missing
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Princess of Nebraska all main characters
use both Chinese and English. Moreover, both films’ use of language is self-
conscious and even explicitly discussed, especially in A Thousand Years of Good
Prayers, where characters speak in three languages: Putonghua, English and
Farsi. Language and communication are central to the film’s depiction of the
relationships between Mr Shi and his daughter and Mr Shi and his Iranian
Language and second language acquisition are constantly emphasized by
Mr Shi’s use of his notebook. Wang uses humour to communicate the strug-
gle for the first generation of immigrants as well as the language competency
of the second. For example, when Mr Shi sees a sign of the convenience shop
‘Kum & Go’, and inquires about the meaning of ‘Kum’. Yilan tells him not
to use this spelling in his notebook and recommends, ‘c-o-m-e is […] it just
looks better’, indicating to the viewer her familiarity with English slang.
The significance of language is particularly salient during the climactic
dispute in which Mr Shi accuses Yilan of adultery and she in turn reveals that
she knew that her father was living a lifelong lie about being a rocket scientist.
In response to her father’s accusation, ‘you talked, you laughed […] with such
immodesty’, Yilan says
It’s different […] we talk in English, it’s easier. I don’t talk well in Chinese
[…] If you grew up in a language, in which you never learned, to express
your feelings. It would be easier to learn to talk in a new language. It
makes you a new person.
In the ensuing dialogue, Yilan blames her parents for never talking about
their problems, which lead to her inability to speak about feelings in her
mother tongue and address problems in her own marriage. After Yilan
divorced, her husband returned to Beijing while she stayed in the United
States, indicating that the contrasting embrace of the United States includ-
ing the American language and interpersonal communicative practice may
have contributed to their separation. Another dispute between father and
daughter further underscores that Yilan has adopted American English and
embraced her life in rural Washington State. At one point the father says:
‘Yilan, I am here to help you!’ Her response is the only time she addresses
him in English as she screams: ‘I am perfectly fine!’ This is the only moment
in which she loses her temper and reveals her emotions to her father. It is
indicative of her inability to communicate with her father and to express her
feelings in Chinese.
A second relationship between two characters serves to further amplify
the tragic irony of the father and daughter’s inability to communicate in
Chinese. During the long hours spent alone while Yilan is at work, Mr. Shi
meets an unnamed Iranian woman who migrated to the United States to live
with her son. Using gestures and rudimentary English, they are able to reveal
to each other their innermost feelings and vulnerabilities. Mr. Shi admits that
his daughter is not happy and that he was not a good father, while the lady
reveals that she lost her daughter during the Iran-Iraq War. This exchange
includes a strategic use, or rather omission, of subtitles as a means to convey
Mr. Shi’s experience in the United States. While all of his communication
with his daughter is subtitled, the film does not translate when Mr Shi speaks
in Chinese to someone who cannot understand him. The lady’s Farsi is also
not translated. This selective use of subtitles is violating the conventional
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68 Asian Cinema
use of subtitles as Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour explain at the example of
Vendredi Soir (2002), in which the subtitles misrepresent a breakdown of
communication in the film:
The subtitles, on the other hand, present the dialog with absolute clar-
ity. When Claire Denis asked the subtitler if the text could be presented
with missing letters or words – to reflect the viewer’s experience of
partial comprehension – she was told it would be impossible. The ortho-
doxy stated that ‘Either we have subtitles or we don’t’.
(Egoyan and Balfour 2004: 26)
Through violation of this film convention and calculated omission of subtitles,
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers expresses the incompleteness of communi-
cation that Mr. Shi experiences during his visit. Ironically, the cross-genera-
tional dialogues, which are completely translated, yield less communicative
exchange and mutual understanding than the dialogue between Mr Shi and
the Iranian lady, even though their exchange remains to a large part incom-
prehensible to both characters and the viewer.
While language is a key element in the dialogue to signify the disconnec-
tion between father and daughter, Wang also employs visual means such as
mise-en-scène to express the same. In her perceptive analysis of space in the
film, Jing Nie has argued that the use of Chinese cultural objects in Yilan’s
apartment serve as an allegory for her inner attachment to her Chinese herit-
age that she hides from the public, which is a function of her hybrid identity.
Unlike her father, she does not want to project her Chineseness in the public
space (Nie 2009: 99–100).
Using a series of visual compositions, the film conveys emotional distance
as empty space between father and daughter as well as visual barriers that
separate the two characters in the frame. This can be observed starting from
their first encounter at the airport. Here Yilan is placed on the left side of
the frame separated from the entry by another person (Figure 1). In a static
long take, Mr Shi slowly appears from the background and the door serves
as a framing device to emphasize the empty space around him. As he walks
Figure 1: Wayne Wang, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, 2007. Yilan sees her
father for the first time after twelve years.
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Wang was missing
through the door, Yilan approaches him only reluctantly. During the dinner
scene (Figure 2), the shot emphasizes the empty space in the center of the
frame and the disconnection between the two is further amplified through
Yilan’s avoidance of her father’s gaze. Finally, the separation is strongest
during Mr Shi’s soliloquy in which he reveals his emotions and regrets (Figure
3). While together in the same shot, they are in different rooms, visually sepa-
rated by the wall. Mr Shi is not aware that his daughter is listening. Tragically,
she leaves midway through Mr Shi’s revelations and thus misses the section in
which he explains that he was demoted from his work as a rocket scientist for
political reasons by the party leaders and thus was himself a victim as much as
a perpetrator of deceit.
The effect of the mise-en-scène depicted above owes much to the film’s
slow editing and narrative pace as it provides the viewer the time necessary
to feel the pain of the characters’ isolation. The same applies to the emphasis
of the two main characters’ loneliness as well as the general sense of social
separation in suburban America. Several static long takes of empty indoor and
suburban spaces are shown throughout the film (Figure 4 and Figure 5.) It
would have been difficult to create this sensation of the Chinese immigrant
experience in a mainstream Hollywood production and certainly impossible to
do so using the slow-paced style employed in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.
Wang explained the restrictions of studio filmmaking regarding editing: ‘For
example, in the big budget films, you are never allowed to breathe. The film
doesn’t breathe. Everything is cut very, very fast. When nothing happens, it’s
gone’ (Eguchi 2009). Just as the editing would be too slow for a studio film so
would the narrative, as Wang points out in the same interview: ‘It doesn’t have
Figure 3: Wayne Wang, A Thousand Years of Good
Prayers, 2007. Mr Shi confesses without knowing that
Yilan is listening.
Figure 2: Wayne Wang, A Thousand Years of Good
Prayers, 2007. Mr Shi and Yilan argue at the dinner
Figure 5: Wayne Wang, A Thousand Years of Good
Prayers, 2007. Train station platform.
Figure 4: Wayne Wang, A Thousand Years of Good
Prayers, 2007. Train station waiting hall.
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70 Asian Cinema
a big dramatic story. It doesn’t have your Hollywood Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.
It’s shot very simply’ (Eguchi 2009: n.pag.). The sparse narrative matches the
restrained visual style of the film. While the plot could be summarized in a
few sentences, Wang succeeds in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers to capture
profound and universal inner struggles of migrants in general and those of
Chinese Americans in particular.
SHADOW FILMS, FORMAL EXPERIMENTATION AND princess of
Sandra Liu has discussed an important and exceptional phenomenon of
Wang’s film career in what she called ‘shadow films’ (Liu 2000). These are
experimental films that were inspired by and connected to more conventional
films such as Dim Sum Take-Out (1988), inspired by Dim Sum: A Little Bit of
Heart (1985), Blue in the Face (1995), inspired by Smoke, or Life is Cheap … But
Toilet Paper is Expensive (1989), inspired by Eat a Bowl of Tea. According to Liu,
‘these films stand out among Wang’s works because they represent distinct
instances throughout his career (to date) in which his refusal simply to accom-
modate market demands have crystallized’. She has called them shadow films
‘because they exist in the shadows of, or portray a darker vision of paral-
lel themes in their companion pieces’ (Liu 2000: 98). With those films, Liu
continues, ‘Wang was actively responding to the structural limitations that the
mainstream film industry placed on him, wresting spaces for himself in which
he could explore aesthetics and themes that would otherwise be suppressed’
(Liu 2000: 99). Difficulty to find financing for experimental films in the United
States is certainly not limited to Chinese or other migrant directors. Still, it is
worth remembering that Wang’s career began with the film Chan is Missing,
which won production grants from the National Endowment of the Arts
and the American Film Institute and was honoured as Best Experimental/
Independent Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 1982 (Chiu
1982). Given this early success, one might wonder if his background might not
have further added to the necessity to rely on the imaginative shadow film
strategy to provide funding for cinematic experimentation. His most recent
shadow film is Princess of Nebraska. Like A Thousand Years of Good Prayers it is
based on a short story by Yiyun Li. It was shot immediately after A Thousand
Years of Good Prayers on a micro-budget with left over funds from that film
(Lim 2008). While Princess of Nebraska exhibits some thematic and formal
parallels, it also includes several formal innovations and narrative features that
make it a more experimental film in comparison to A Thousand Years of Good
Prayers, as I will explore in the following.
Princess of Nebraska tells 24 hours in the life of Sasha, who is a Chinese
college student in Omaha, Nebraska. At the beginning of the film she arrives
in San Francisco, where she has friends, to get an abortion. The child is from
a one-night stand back home in Beijing with Yang, a bisexual Chinese opera
singer. In San Francisco, she is staying with Boshen, who used to live in
Beijing and also had an affair with Yang. Over the next day, she roams the city
aimlessly, attends a dinner party with Boshen, and visits a karaoke club with
her friend May. After Boshen fails to change her mind, Sasha seems to go
through with the abortion although her choice is not revealed explicitly.
Princess of Nebraska first surprises the viewer with an unusual widescreen
aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This is an ironic choice since this format was common
in Hollywood films up until the 1970s for studio productions using the
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Wang was missing
3. CinemaScope offered
an aspect ratio of 2.55:1
starting in 1953, which
was reduced to 2.35:1 in
subsequent years and
by 1957, 84.5 per cent
of all movie theatres in
the United States and
Canada had adopted
the process (Cook 2016:
CinemaScope process.3 It was also the original theatrical aspect ratio of Jaws
(1975) and Star Wars (1977), which ignited the Hollywood era of the tent-pole
blockbuster that is ongoing until today. This aspect ratio is particularly uncommon
for ultra-low budget films shot with prosumer digital cameras such as Princess
of Nebraska. Wang is using the widescreen format to destabilize the dichotomy
between low budget independent and Hollywood studio productions. He is
achieving this goal by ironically playing with and creatively frustrating audience
expectations and by alternately rejecting and embracing conventional wide screen
framing, mise-en-scène, and camera work. Given the historical use of widescreen
formats, audiences are conditioned to expect long shots, landscapes, and carefully
arranged mise-en-scène (Cook 2016: 315–21). Princess of Nebraska frustrates this
expectation starting with the very first shot, which is a close-up of red high-heel
shoes worn by someone who is impatiently pacing back and forth (Figure 6).
The viewer does not know who is wearing the shoes or where she is wait-
ing. The restless movements of the person suggest that she could be nervous
and the ambient noise on the soundtrack and the glossy floor only vaguely
implies a public waiting hall in an airport. The shiny red shoes, furthermore,
indicate fashion and thus the film opens with an image of global consumer-
ism. The idea of design and fashion is even present in the display of the film’s
title, which is matching the pink colour of the pants on a black background.
The absence of an establishing shot, the use of extreme close-ups from the
outset, and the fragmentation of the body frustrate the orientation of the
viewers and force them to participate actively in the film’s meaning making by
considering some of the connotations I have presented here.
The shots following the film’s title confirm the viewer’s suspicion that the
young lady is waiting at the baggage claim of an airport. This is an impor-
tant connection to A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. The point of departure for
both films is the airport that is the ubiquitous space of global mobility. China
and people living in China are now much closer to the United States and the
Chinese American experience. Migration is no longer a one-way street as was
the case for Chinese Americans portrayed in Wang’s earlier films but they are
moving back and forth between China and the United States as is the case
for Sasha, the main character of Princess of Nebraska, who is introduced in the
opening shots described above.
In addition to the close framing used for most of the film, Wang also
frustrates viewer expectations of a widescreen film by employing almost
Figure 6: Wayne Wang, The Princess of Nebraska, 2008. Opening shot showing a
close-up of red high-heel shoes.
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72 Asian Cinema
exclusively a handheld camera. Princess of Nebraska in large part recalls the
cinéma-vérité style. The camera follows Sasha as she wanders through San
Francisco as if documenting her experience, much of the film is shot on loca-
tion in public areas, and most of the sound is recorded on location and often
includes ambient noises. In addition to the documentary appearance of the
film, the handheld camera also mirrors Sasha’s inner restlessness, for example,
as she is waiting for her appointment at the abortion clinic.
In part, the film’s experimental camera work is a direct consequence of
the ultra-low budget and independent nature of the production. Princess of
Nebraska was co-produced by the Center for Asian American Media in San
Francisco, which introduced Wang to the cinematographer Richard Wong,
who had only completed one independent film prior to Princess of Nebraska:
Colma: The Musical (2006). Wong described the shooting process of Princess of
Nebraska as ‘guerrilla’ and liberating. Wang directly acknowledged the contri-
bution of his director of photography in pushing him to be more adventurous:
‘There’s a rebellious creativity there and he brought that out of me’ (Lim 2008:
n.pag.). In addition to the budget constraints, the daring choice of a young
and inexperienced director of photography undoubtedly was a key factor in
shaping the look of the film. A. O. Scott of the New York Times praised the
film’s cinematography (Scott 2008) and Wang recognized Wong’s impact by
sharing directing credits with him (Lim 2008: n.pag.).
The film’s experimental camera work paradoxically becomes most mean-
ingful when it is suspended. In three key sequences, Wang and Wong do not
use the handheld camera thereby creating a sense of time and space different
from the flow of the rest of the film. In the first instance, Sasha is spending
the night with her girlfriend May. They have sex and they talk. Sasha, read-
ing from a diary, recalls how their romantic relationship started sometime in
the past. She then says in English: ‘Come with me to Nebraska and then we
can go to LA, London, New York’. May responds in Chinese: ‘Little Princess
of Nebraska, give me a fucking break’, and then continues in English: ‘Every
night I play these roles for these fucking men in these fucking bars […] I am
sick and tired of acting out other people’s tragedies!’ May then continues to
tell the story how her mother was forced to stay in Mongolia because of her,
yet had told her that her mother ‘never regretted having me, that I gave her
life purpose, a place to be, even if it was not the best place’. The film then
suspends the handheld camera and proceeds with a carefully calculated crane
shot that moves slowly up with a turning motion from a medium shot of
Sasha’s face and comes to a halt on a highly stylized tableau showing both
women lying on separate beds. The stunning shot takes advantage of the full
width of the wide screen frame (Figure 7). The soundtrack of ethereal synthe-
sizer sounds, which gradually increase in volume, further adds to the surreal-
ism of this shot. The composition captures the connection between the two
young women as they are shown in the intimate setting like a mirror image of
each other. At the same time, the unbridgeable gap between both is visualized
to indicate that Sasha is ultimately alone with the existential choice that she
has to make.
Second, the film uses static tripod shots during Sasha’s visit to the abor-
tion clinic. On the way to the clinic and after the appointment, a handheld
camera is used. Only during the conversation, when Sasha is alone with
the doctor, the camera is still. The scene is edited in a classic shot-reverse-
shot sequence showing a close-up of both women’s faces as they are talking
through the abortion procedure. Again, the camera work interrupts the flow
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Wang was missing
of the film as if to suspend the normal progression of time and provide space
for appreciating the gravity of the conversation. The climax of the scene occurs
when Sasha looks at the ultrasound to see the foetus. The doctor recommends
Sasha to see the screen as it would help her ‘to make some decisions’. This
is followed by an extreme long take of 47 seconds. Very slowly the camera
zooms in until it comes to a stop at a close-up of Sasha’s face as she is star-
ing at the screen. Her eyes then move slowly towards the camera to look at
the audience. At this moment, the doctor asks: ‘Are you ok, Sasha?’ The rest
of the shot is completely silent except for the ticking of a clock. The shot and
the sound emphasize the duration of this existential moment. The viewer
becomes implicated in Sasha’s agony through the long seconds that she looks
towards the viewer and then turns back to the ultrasound screen (Figure 8).
The only words uttered serve to point out the obvious as the viewer senses the
rhetorical nature of the question.
Third, Princess of Nebraska ends with a highly experimental scene that
shows Sasha standing in front of a large concrete wall while the US band
Anthony and the Johnsons’ Hope There’s Someone is playing for the entire dura-
tion of the song, which amounts to just over four minutes. The scene consists
of two shots. The first shot is handheld and moves from a close-up of the
face that covers more than half the frame, to a medium shot of her upper
body, covering only one-fifth of the frame, to an extreme long shot in which
Figure 8: Wayne Wang, The Princess of Nebraska, 2008. Sasha looking at the
Figure 7: Wayne Wang, The Princess of Nebraska, 2008. Tableau of Sasha and
May in the hotel.
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74 Asian Cinema
she appears tiny in front of the huge grey wall (Figure 9). During the close
shot, we see her lips moving first out of sync with the song then increasingly
synchronized with the lyrics.
The song plays a central role in the concluding scene due to its mini-
malist instrumentation as well as the mesmerizing quality and unusual high
pitch of Anohni’s voice. The song amplifies the surrealism and melodrama
of the moment and the setting. Both sound and image are highly unreal,
yet profound and existential at the same time. A brief look at the lyrics
demonstrates the song’s concrete relevance to the film’s central theme of
Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me
When I die, will I go?
And hope there’s someone who’ll set my heart free
Rest alone when I’m tired
There’s a ghost on the horizon
When I go to bed
How will I fall asleep tonight?
How will I rest my head?
And that sin, I don’t want to go
To the seals of war through shame
And there’s a ghost on the horizon
When I go to bed
Oh I’m scared of that middle place
Between light and nowhere
I don’t want to be the one
Left in there, left in there.
(Anthony and the Johnsons 2005)
The first stanza could be interpreted to refer to one of the most existential
desires for parenthood and the hope that old age and death can be made
bearable through children. The second stanza could refer to the aborted child
that presumably haunts Sasha. The abortion returns as ‘that sin’ in stanza
Figure 9: Wayne Wang, The Princess of Nebraska, 2008. The film’s final shot of
04_AC_29.1_Gruenewald_63-79.indd 74 6/14/18 12:24 PM
Wang was missing
three. Finally, stanza four could be seen to refer to Sasha’s state between
life and death at the final scene of the film. At the same time, much remains
unsaid and left to the imagination of the viewer. We do not even know with
certainty that Sasha made the decision to abort the pregnancy since the
scene in the clinic ends with her looking at the ultrasound image of the fetus
in awe. There is only a faint hint as she barely nods to Boshen when leaving
These three scenes stand out through their visual style but they are also
connected by their narrative significance. Each of them visualizes an existen-
tial experience that contrasts with the disconnected, mediated, and superfi-
cial experiences of the airport, the shopping mall, the dinner party and the
The first scene is the only time that Sasha is intimately connected to
another person although her relationship with May cannot solve her strug-
gle with the decision regarding her pregnancy and the fact that she ultimately
must make the decision and bear its consequences alone. In the second scene
at the abortion clinic, Sasha can no longer escape from the weight of her
circumstance through distraction. Looking at the unborn fetus, she is hit by
the full force of the existential dimension of the decision that she has to make.
Finally, the third scene is the most enigmatic and extreme if only for its excep-
tional duration and complete separation from the diegetic world of the film.
The combination of image and song capture Sasha’s existential pain as well as
her complete isolation and alienation.
The question then remains how Princess of Nebraska is connected to the
issue of Chinese migration to the United States and the shifting meaning
of Chinese American identity? One way to answer this inquiry is to look
at the character Boshen. Wang changed his race from Chinese in Li’s short
story to Caucasian. This racial transformation is significant as Boshen is
the first white American character in Wang’s films that had migrated in
the reverse direction and the first non-Chinese character that is fluent in
Chinese and speaks the language in the film. This is a fundamental depar-
ture from the migration patterns depicted in Wang’s earlier films, which
indicates that the power relation between the dominant white and Chinese
American community has shifted. The character Boshen suggests that the
status of China in relation to the United States has changed as Jing Nie
They are both global shoppers of alien cultures: Boshen is drawn to
Beijing Opera, while Sasha is obsessed with Western culture […] The
once dominant Western culture gradually lost its (post-) colonizing
power in the globalized cultural market and is objectified by re-asserting
Oriental gazes […].
(Nie 2009: 109)
The Chinese language and culture and the country as a destination of migra-
tion are now attractive to white Americans. At the same time, Chinese
migrants to the United States are no longer automatically committed to stay-
ing there like Yilan in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Both Sasha and Boshen
exemplify that flows of migration between China and the United States have
become circular. Such a fundamental change necessarily impacts Chinese
American identity, which itself has played a role in Wang’s return to inde-
pendent film production (Nie 2009: 98).
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76 Asian Cinema
4. The film won the Best
Film and Best Actor
awards at the 55th San
CONCLUSION: RECLAIMING INDEPENDENCE WITH INTERNATIONAL
HELP AND INNOVATIVE DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION
Both films could not have been realized without international financing and
innovative digital distribution. As detailed above, A Thousand Years of Good
Prayers was only made due to a Japanese investor (Corey n.pag.) and The
Princess of Nebraska was a shadow film of the former and essentially realized
on leftover budget. After a successful film festival run,4 A Thousand Years of Good
Prayers was purchased by Magnolia Pictures along with The Princess of Nebraska.
While A Thousand Years of Good Prayers received a limited theatrical release in
the United States, this was not the case for the lower budget and more experi-
mental The Princess of Nebraska. Wayne Wang liked the idea of a double bill and
the two films were shown together in some film festivals. However, Magnolia
Pictures rejected the idea since the concept had failed in 2007 with the Robert
Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse (2007). Instead,
Magnolia decided to release The Princess of Nebraska online through YouTube
for free in preparation of a double feature DVD (Figure 10) release of both films
(Snyder 2008). Ultimately, the strategy succeeded as the goal was to increase the
viewership through the limited time online release and the film accumulated
close to a quarter of a million page views, which is about ten times the theatrical
audience of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Sickels 2011: 174). Just as Wayne
Wang was a trailblazer of independent film during the early 1980s, particularly
The Princess of Nebraska suggests that he has been at the forefront of innovation
again in the recent era of low-budget digital filmmaking and online distribution.
Figure 10: Double release DVD cover.
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Wang was missing
The strategy to distribute both films together is sensible as they are themati-
cally and formally related. Although they are quite different stylistically, both
convey inner struggles of Chinese migrants to the United States through viola-
tions of Hollywood film convention: primarily through mise-en-scène and editing
in the case of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and through camera movement,
framing, long takes and sound in the case of The Princess of Nebraska. Together,
both films provide a picture of Chinese immigration in the early twenty-first
century. By looking at three different generations of Chinese migrants, they also
suggest how the background and identity of Chinese migrants have changed,
particularly for the latest generation. The existential choice and the cultural
conflict between China and the United States is no longer an important conflict
in The Princess of Nebraska. The cover for the DVD double release captures the
shift between the two films. The upper half shows Yilan with her father sitting on
a bench. While firmly seated in the American landscape, she is figuratively look-
ing back to the previous generation as if she is looking back on her own past. By
contrast, the lower half of the cover shows Sasha looking at her mobile phone,
as she seems to be taking a selfie. She is not shown as present in a real place but
instead turns to the global virtual space through which she is connected back
to China even when in the United States, as is depicted in the film when she,
for example, is texting with Yang. The central issue for the new generation is no
longer the conflict across cultures, but the narrative and visual attention turns to
herself and her existential problem of an unwanted pregnancy.
I wish to thank Gina Marchetti for generously providing feedback on an
earlier version of this article. I also thank the participants of the 6th American
Studies Fulbright Conference held in 2015 at The University of Hong Kong for
comments and suggestions that helped me further develop this article.
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Wang was missing
GLOSSARY OF CHINESE TERMS
Roman type Chinese characters English
The Joy Luck Club 《喜福會》
Ang LEE 李安
Yiyun LI 李翊雲
Wayne WANG 王颖
Gruenewald, T. (2018), ‘Wang was missing: Rediscovering Wayne Wang’s
independence’, Asian Cinema, 29:1, pp. 63–79, doi: 10.1386/ac.29.1.63_1
Tim Gruenewald is assistant professor and director of the American Studies
Programme at The University of Hong Kong. He is the co-editor of Imperial
Benevolence: U.S. Foreign Policy and American Popular Culture Since 9/11 (with
Scott Laderman, Los Angeles: University of California Press, forthcoming
2018) and the editor of Remembering African American Contributions: Voices from
the Kinsey Collection (Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati Press, forthcoming
Contact: Run Run Shaw Tower, Room 5.01, Pokfulam Road, The University of
Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China.
Tim Gruenewald has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that
was submitted to Intellect Ltd.
04_AC_29.1_Gruenewald_63-79.indd 79 6/14/18 12:24 PM
Intellect is an independent academic publisher of books and journals. To view our catalogue or order our titles visit
www.intellectbooks.com / @intellectbooks
Journal of African Cinemas
ISSN 1754-9221 | Online ISSN 1754-923X
3 issues per volume | First published 2009
Aims and Scope
The Journal of African Cinemas is a double-blind peer-reviewed journal that
explores the interactions of visual and verbal narratives in African film.
It recognizes the shifting paradigms that have defined and continue to define
African cinemas. Identity and perception are interrogated in relation to their
positions within diverse African film languages.
The editors are seeking articles, reviews and comparative analyses that
expound on the identity or identities of Africa and its peoples represented
Keyan G. Tomaselli
University of KwaZulu-Natal
04_AC_29.1_Gruenewald_63-79.indd 80 6/13/18 10:48 AM