There’s a scene about halfway through Wayne Wang’s 2007 film The Princess of Nebraska that’s the complete stylistic opposite of the ending of his 1982 masterpiece, Chan Is Missing. You’ll be forgiven if it reminded you of those Christopher Doyle-filmed handheld scenes in Chungking Express, and maybe it’s even done on purpose: the scene is all a blurred swath of neon and Chinese characters, at once both immediately recognizable and illegible. (The man messing with the camera is Richard Wong, the talented director of Colma: The Musical.)
In contrast, the conclusion of Chan Is Missing consists of unmoving black-and-white scenes of Chinatown, of its residents walking with their groceries and waiting for the bus, of store facades and empty sidewalks reminiscent of Atget’s Paris, while “Grant Avenue” from Flower Drum Song plays semi-ironically on the soundtrack. (Most people seem to remember the preceding scene as the conclusion — a Harry Callahan-like image of gray ocean ripples, while our accidental detective “summarizes” the case on the voiceover — but that’s not the real ending.)
These two scenes — shot in the same location, a little over twenty-five years apart — exemplify not only a cinematic difference. They also invoke two different Chinas, the filmic embodiments of the vast cultural and socioeconomic differences produced in that short quarter-century. As with Jia Zhangke’s film The World, this conjured homeland is awash with unequally distributed capital, with twittering cellphones and designer clothes.
But the China in this particular film is both absent and perpetually present, therefore mirroring the dislocation in the film as a whole. The new China seems incomprehensible to and utterly removed from Chinatown, but the main character is constantly connected to that China electronically. Even if her messages and videos do not seem to require or elicit a response.
The Princess of Nebraska has a fragile shell of a plot: Sasha (newcomer Ling Li), a 16-year old Chinese college student, is not in Nebraska anymore (the first shot, after all, is of her red shoes), but has arrived, by way of the Oakland airport, in the San Francisco Bay Area. I won’t reveal the reasons for her arrival (though any internet search will tell you, unfortunately), but it probably doesn’t matter: plot is decidedly subservient to mood and image here, the background to the narrative only barely hinted at.
Sasha stands in for a new Chinese generation, born way too long after the Great Leap Forward. When asked about Tienanmen, Sasha simply answers, “I heard about it from my grandmother.” Whether her answer is given out of pique, boredom, or honesty is irrelevant; the point is that she and her generation (to echo the new American turn-of-phrase Sasha learns) has “moved on”.
Despite the superficial quality of her interactions with other people (and I think this is deliberate) — her friends chattering about going to parties to meet hot men, reading other people’s letters never sent, engaging in aimless theft, wandering the city streets as a dazed flâneuse — the film masks a deeper discontent. These interactions can also be seen in contrast to Chan Is Missing, which, despite its improvised meanderings, is full of discussions about identity without them being specifically denoted as such. (I’m also reminded of two recent movies — Lost in Translation and Cafe Lumiere — which feature women navigating through foreign cities alone.)
Sasha’s world is almost constantly mediated by the cellphone videos she takes: confessional fragments, snatched from the swirl of life around her, crammed into a small screen. The Princess of Nebraska skims across surfaces, and Wong’s camera catches glimpses of Sasha obscured through dirty glass, half-hidden behind walls, or captured in smeared reflections. (There’s a sound cue employed throughout the film that sounds like the whooshing of a BART train, suggesting perpetual transit.) These filmic gestures serve to heighten a sense of restless desperation on Sasha’s part: a need to relate, to simply connect, to actually hook up in an existential manner — to find anything that makes any sort of sense — in order to save herself, a woman adrift between allegiances and continents.
Ultimately, however, the film is something of a weaker effort, as wispy as the skirt Sasha wears in her After Hours odyssey through San Francisco. It’s certainly comparatively insubstantial in the context of Wang’s early oeuvre. This assessment, however, is unfair because Chan Is Missing is in my top ten films of all time; if we’re only talking about Asian American films, then Chan Is Missing is without a doubt the greatest of them all — an impossibly high standard in my book, to say the least. But The Princess of Nebraska is nonetheless a fascinating, beautifully filmed work.
During the Q&A portion, Ling Li joked that there was “no ending”. But of course there was one. It isn’t as magnificently sublime as the last four minutes of Chan Is Missing — this one’s about four minutes and a half, precisely choreographed to an achingly beautiful Antony and The Johnsons song — but it’s haunting and shiveringly enigmatic all the same. I don’t want to spoil it for future viewers — I’ll just say that I think it’s about infancy and the struggle to speak the inarticulable — but who knows what the scene is really about? It’s still the equivalent of those floating, bobbing, shifting waves of meaning at the end of Chan Is Missing, and with that Wayne Wang comes back full circle to Chinatown and his own cinematic ambiguities.