Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review – The Princess of Nebraska

June 14, 2009

The Princess of Nebraska – 2007, U.S.

Towards the middle of Wayne Wang’s 2007 film The Princess of Nebraska, Sasha (Li-Ling), a young international student from Mainland China, sits on a dark, dry step, puts her head in her arms, and begins to softly weep. Perhaps no moment in the film better captures her state of mind. “It’s dead around here,” she’ll tell a stranger who sits next to her a bit later. The stranger simply responds, “What do you expect? It’s Chinatown.” To those who live there, this may not come as a surprise, but it is certainly not what Sasha had been pinning her hopes on. Indeed, what San Francisco’s Chinatown becomes after dark is a far cry from the bustling centers of activity, cuisine, and culture that Sasha is most likely used to back home, and this realization finally breaks her. Later, we will see her in a place that no one should ever find oneself in, a place where men are addressed as “sir” and toasts are given to “new friends.” What makes this scene all the more shocking is that Sasha, alone in a big city and four-months pregnant, goes there quite willingly.

For many directors, such a scene would be a turning point, the moment at which the audience truly saw the character for who she really was. However, Sasha’s earlier actions were perplexing instead of affirming. In the beginning of the film, we watch her arrive at Oakland International Airport from Nebraska and find no one waiting to pick her up. However, instead of this being a major inconvenience, Sasha simply exits the airport and takes BART to her destination. When her friend finally arrives, we expect her to be upset, especially after her friend explains her absence as being the result of a late party and a late night tryst with a gentleman she met there, yet Sasha dismisses her own negative feelings as being the result of hunger. All of this would present Sasha in an extremely positive light were if not for the fact that throughout each scene she has appeared alarmingly indifferent to many of those around her, as if she had expected those she calls friends to disappoint her in the end.

Unlike other directors, Wang does not fall back on conventional techniques to explain Sasha’s personality. In particular, he does not use flashbacks to show us pertinent or tragic events in Sasha’s life. Viewers just see her as she is now. The result of this is that Sasha never becomes the kind of sympathetic character that elicits much empathy from viewers. Instead, Sasha is presented as a member of a generation that – either intentionally or unintentionally – has a misplaced set of priorities and no sense of history. Her priorities, as well as those of her friends, include boys, designer clothing and accessories, and not much else. Sasha couldn’t care less about the affects of China’s one-child policy and appears ignorant of important recent events in Chinese history such as the Great Leap Forward.

It could be said that The Princess of Nebraska is a film that is somewhat inaccessible to viewers. What we think Sasha should know about, she doesn’t; what we think she should care about, she doesn’t. The life growing inside of her is a reminder of heartbreak, not something that gives her a sense of warmth. And yet, she still seems to hold out hope that her knight in shining armor is on his way. As she puts it, “A prostitute can become a princess.” Her friend does not share this view, explaining that there’s no Edward Lewis driving around the corner about to discover her inner beauty. This is exactly the hope that Sasha had been trying to keep alive: that her prince Yang, the father of the child growing inside her, would read her numerous e-mails and look at the cute pictures she sent him of herself and come to her rescue.

I suspect that many people will disagree with my assessment of The Princess of Nebraska. They may see it as a rather slow film with a central character that is not likeable. Some may see the ending as inconclusive or not understand the final scene. I will admit that there is some truth to these sentiments. Indeed, one must listen very carefully to understand the implication of the lyrics Sasha is mouthing at the end of the film. What I admired about the film though was the very fact that it dared to tell a story about someone with whom it was not easy for viewers to empathize. The film challenges us to care for this character, or at the very least to feel sorry for her. This is admittedly tough to do. However, I would rather have a movie confront me with unpleasant truths than show me sanitized versions of complex issues. The truth is that some good people do lose their way, some love is never returned, and sometimes the wrong decision is made simply because doing the right thing would create an inconvenience. (on DVD)

3 stars

*The Princess of Nebraska is in Chinese and English and has English subtitles.

No comments: