In The Princess of Nebraska, Wayne Wang's companion film to his other Toronto entry, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Wang tackles adapting another short story by Yiyun Li. Wang brought to life A Thousand Years of Good Prayers with methodical pacing and the careful unfolding of a story about the conflicted relationship between Mr. Shi, a Chinese father and his adult daughter, Yilan; in Princess, Wang uses an edgier style to show us 24 hours in the life of a college student some 15 years younger than Yilan, who lives in Omaha but has traveled to San Francisco.
The two stories are unrelated, but Wang uses them to contrast the subtle generational differences between a woman raised in "old-Communist" China against a younger woman raised in the post-Tiananmen Square China infused with an influence of Western capitalism and Paris Hilton. The "princess" in the story is Sasha (newcomer Ling Li), a college student in Omaha who, after a trip to Beijing and a fling with her friend Yang, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Sasha has traveled to San Franciso to get an abortion; why she would come so far is never made really clear, other than that Boshen (Brian Danforth), a mutual friend/lover of Yang's, lives there, and presumably he has promised her assistance. Boshen is a Caucasian man who speaks fluent Mandarin; we know that he was Yang's lover in Beijing, that he was deported from China for helping a journalist there research a story about AIDS, and that a side effect of his deportation was that Yang was booted out of the Peking Opera School and is now living on the streets and working as a prostitute. Sasha and Boshen both refer at various times to Yang being "back" on the streets -- the implication being that Boshen rescued Yang from life as a prostitute, got him into the opera school and on his way to a better life, and then was the cause of him being returned to the situation from whence he came. Boshen has tried to contact Yang, tried to enact some vague plan to rescue him, but Yang isn't responding to Boshen's letters or to Sasha's text messages.
Wang presents Sasha as a product of modern China -- aimless, drifting, without moral or spiritual foundation and therefore utterly lacking in ethics or social mores. She does some preposterous and questionably stupid things during her brief foray into San Francisco -- casually stealing at a local mall, befriending X (Pamelyn Chee), a "karaoke hostess," with whom she goes to the karaoke bar to perform for a group of businessmen -- either with utter naivete or reckless abandon, we're not really sure. After being caught rifling through Boshen's private things, she's dragged by him to a dinner party where she proceeds to embarrass him by slyly implying his sexuality to a group of people who may or may not be aware of it, insult the other guests with her rudeness, and then help herself to the contents of other women's purses in the bedroom. In short, she's not a terribly likable character, and yet there's something inexplicably childlike and appealing about Sasha as well.
Wang intertwines the outer world with Sasha's viewpoint by cutting to shots of the video diary Sasha makes with her cell phone; these bits are shown us as squares in the midst of a black screen, as Sasha, with all the solipsism of the American teenagers whose disregard for the world she so emulates, videos her eye in extreme closeup, her pregnant belly with navel ring decorating it, a broken fingernail, herself and X in semi-erotic poses. She is a walking contradiction, one moment tenderly caressing her belly or thoughtfully watching a small child cavort in play, the next casually discussing selling her baby and whether she can get more for it if it's really cute.
Wang used two different cinematogaphers in shooting Prayers and Princess, but there are some trademark visual similarities that mark both films as Wang's stylistically. He uses extreme close-ups of faces to put the viewer intimately in uncomfortable or awkward conversations,and he frequently uses physical spaces and things to define emotional interactions between characters or to reflect inner feelings. In Prayers, he used the wall of the daughter's apartment as an emotional wall between father and daughter, and Russian nesting dolls as the clue to an affair; in Princess, he uses a window frame and camera angles to conceal the face of Wolf, the man Sasha talks to about selling her baby, and a mylar "Congratulations" balloon as both Sasha's acknowledgment of her pregnancy,and a letting go as she prepares herself mentally for her appointment at the abortion clinic.
At the clinic itself, we see only Sasha's face for most of her conversation with the abortion clinic counselor, until the point where the counselor asks why it took Sasha so long to decide to come in; when Sasha sees her 16-week-old fetus on the ultrasound screen, we see not the baby, but Sasha's reaction to seeing it. Wang revels in these kinds of subtleties, and they are part of what makes him such a masterful storyteller. The lean script focuses on showing rather than telling, and is blessedly free of clunky exposition. We aren't supposed to know, understand or judge everything about Sasha -- her background, her family, how she met Yang, how she feels about Boshen, how she really feels about the pregnancy. We don't know, even know, by the end of it, whether she had the abortion or not, and if she didn't abort, whether she will keep her baby or sell it.
We're not privy to all those details, because those details are not the point of the story; we're seeing a sliver of a life shaped by a culture in which there are too few girls because the one-child policy has led to mass aborting of girl babies; where brides are in such short supply for the overabundance of men seeking them that they have to look outside the country to find them (or steal them, as shown in Blind Mountain, which played at Telluride); a culture in which young men and women of Sasha's age have never even heard of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Sasha exists in a bubble unto herself, largely oblivious to the greater world around her; if she is Wang's view of this generation of Chinese young people, it's a pretty grim view, and yet, at the end, he leaves us not without hope for Sasha and, by extension, all that she represents.