The Joy Luck Club director Wayne Wang releases his newest film, The Princess of Nebraska, for free on YouTube Friday, reflecting both the rise of online video sites and the low-budget independent film market's constrictions. The Princess of Nebraska serves as a companion piece to another Wang film, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Both involve Chinese characters in America and are adapted from short stories by Chinese immigrant Yiyun Li.
Magnolia Pictures will distribute A Thousand Years of Good Prayers via the art-house route, but the YouTube platform makes a certain amount of sense for The Princess of Nebraska. The 77-minute character study follows 18-year-old Sasha (Li Ling), a Chinese teenager perfectly at home with new communications technologies like text messaging and cell phone cameras. It's as if the character chose how she wanted her story to be seen.
Nebraska's brisk running time suits online viewing, but its mood and point of view seem better suited for the theater. Wang's quiet scenes, handheld camerawork and slow revelations of information require an audience meet Nebraska half way, and that's more of a challenge when watching a movie on your laptop.
Fortunately, Nebraska intrigues the viewer from the beginning, as Sasha arrives at the San Francisco airport with no one to meet her. She tracks down friends and we gradually piece together her story: A handsome young Peking Opera star has left her pregnant and contemplating an abortion as she stays with Boshen (Brian Danforth), an American who also loves the singer.
If Wang intends Sasha to represent China's new generation, Nebraska offers an unflattering portrait. Sasha seems barely aware of the major events in recent Chinese history, such as Mao's Great Leap Forward or the Tiananmen Square "tank man." She does know of China's restrictions on childbirth, and considers selling her baby on the black market. Sasha's habit of taking cell phone snapshots of herself or surroundings reflects her mental state: The little images on the screen indicate her introspection as well as her limited self-awareness. As the film progresses, however, Ling's performance subtly captures Sasha's gradual maturity, and Sasha's willingness to treat life more seriously seems, in personal terms, like a different kind of great leap forward.
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