You can almost tell when Wayne Wang makes films that he probably considers closer to his heart: they come in pairs. Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985), was accompanied by Dim Sum Take Out, a short film made up of outtakes from the previous film. Smoke (1995), written by the novelist Paul Auster, was followed by Blue in the Face (1995), a series of improvisations based on the characters from Smoke.
His two latest films -– A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (winner of the Golden Shell for Best Film at the 2008 San Sebastian Film Festival) and The Princess of Nebraska, both from 2007 – are companion movies as well: both are based on short stories by the prize-winning Oakland-based writer Yiyun Li. They are studies in contrasting cinematic styles, as well: slow, elegant takes for A Thousand Years; smeared handheld digital cameras for the other.
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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.)
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Just wanted to point you folks to an interview with Wayne Wang I conducted for my American Pop column over at AsianWeek. Reviews of his two latest movies coming shortly…
I have an entry on the director Wayne Wang on one of my other blogs, American Pop. It’s called The Saga of Wayne Wang and will probably inaugurate a whole series of reviews (if not a full-on retrospective) of his work to date.