In essence, Wayne Wang's A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers consists of a single critical conversation. But the participants have been putting it off their whole lives, and it takes some building up to. So most of the film consists of empty exchanges and long, quiet pauses; as days pass, they fail to express themselves, and the tension gradually builds, until speaking finally becomes easier than silence. The wait is sometimes keen, sometimes dull. But just as it often happens in real life, once everything finally comes to the surface, it feels anticlimactic.
Henry O stars as a Chinese widower visiting his only child, American immigrant and recent divorcée Faye Yu. He's a self-confessed bad father with no understanding of her relationship, her American life, or her adult personality; she's a quiet, withdrawn woman with no interest in baring her soul to her long-estranged dad. So he cooks and spends days at home, trying to relate to her through her possessions, and attempting to resume a dad role by ordering her to eat more and get to bed earlier, or lecturing her about her marriage. There's no heat to his criticism, he's just fulfilling a role, but it's one Yu doesn't need. The more he presses, the more she evades and fades away. While their generational, political, and experiential differences stand in the way of understanding, nothing really happens until they both finally admit their wrongdoings.
Wang seems to be trying for the reflective silence and emotionally fraught familial relationships of a Yasujiro Ozu film, but his characters are too underdeveloped to support the weight of such expectations, and their internal performances, plus Wang's indifferent DV cinematography, don't give audiences much to look at. While this film marks a huge step for Wang, away from his commercial Hollywood fare (Because Of Winn-Dixie, Maid In Manhattan, the Queen Latifah vehicle Last Holiday, etc.) and back to the indie films that made his name, it's almost too far a leap. It feels stubbornly distant and lifeless. There's certainly some sweetness to the film, particularly in O's awkward but heartfelt attempts at conversation with Iranian immigrant Vida Ghahremani, who, like him, speaks little English. As with his daughter, they have little common ground, but with both participants making an effort, they manage a mutually satisfying communication. But most of the film isn't as willing to reach out to viewers, and most won't be willing to do all the work in order to connect with it.