In traditional sonnet form, there’s always a turn at the ninth line. At that moment in verse, the mood switches and the tone changes to reveal something. The Princess of Nebraska, more poetry than film, has that moment too. Wayne Wang’s newest independent film documents a young immigrant’s visit to San Francisco.
Mid-way through the movie, the protagonist, Sasha (Ling Li) — four months pregnant and looking to terminate her pregnancy — lashes out at a dinner party. “You guys know nothing about China. You are not even Chinese,” she says, defensively. Wang’s film is an exploration of Chinese immigrant identity, specifically through the eyes of a young woman whose issues are extremely different from those of the older generation. While Sasha deals with her pregnancy, abortion and her own sexuality, she is also confronted with the trials of older émigrés — their loss of Chinese identity and disconnect from the younger generation.
Though Wayne Wang has found commercial success in directing movies like Jennifer Lopez’s Maid in Manhattan and Queen Latifah’s Last Holiday, films like The Princess of Nebraska make it clear that his heart isn’t in big-budget Hollywood. Wang, an immigrant who currently lives in the bay area, continues to return over and over again to Asian American issues. In Princess of Nebraska, Sasha frequently tells people that she came to San Francisco only to see the city. The film lingers on the bright lights of Chinatown, intimate close ups with the people she meets in the street and romantic portrayals of karaoke clubs and brothels. No doubt Sasha’s simultaneous loss and wonder in the Chinese community of San Francisco reflects some of the director’s own experience: The movie is intimately filmed in private locations.
When Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), a film about drug addiction, trafficking and sex in a community of Asian American youth was released, there was a lot of criticism from the older Chinese audience. This sort of controversy will no doubt circle The Princess of Nebraska as well, though Wayne Wang has seemingly targeted it at a younger audience by exclusively releasing it on YouTube. However — though at first Wang’s film may seem like another film dealing only with youth culture — it also explores the complexity and diversity of Chinese identity.
Sasha, in her couple of days in San Francisco, meets a variety of people, all of whom identify with Chinese culture in different ways. She meets X, a prostitute-cum-bar hostess, who at first becomes her older sister. X is part of a new generation of immigrants — she teaches Sasha how to indulge in drugs, alcohol and prostitution. But like all characters in this movie, X is more than just a symbol of reckless youth. In a moment of intimacy, the director exposes another side of Sasha: She’s tired, weary, desperate and angry.
The Princess of Nebraska, at many times, seems like a documentary. There are no Hollywood stars in this movie — the glamour and make-up artists from The Last Holiday were not allowed on the San Francisco set. Everybody is unperfected, awkward and sometimes unintelligible. In a major motion picture, this sort of acting would simply be viewed as bad, but in The Princess of Nebraska, it lends to the intimate tone: These people seem like people we know. They don’t always have good responses, they get angry and jumbled when they speak about who they are — their make-up runs and sometimes they don’t know what to do. Even the filming, sometimes from Sasha’s camera phone, seems like someone’s self-conscious recording of her life.
Why did Wayne Wang release this movie exclusively on YouTube? It’s had almost 200,000 views since its “premiere” two Fridays ago. That sort of success is comparable to a film festival showing or an independent release. Was it a lack of faith in the film? Was the film itself too intimate to share with commercial movie goers on the big screen? Or maybe it was a comment, à la In Rainbows, against piracy and exclusive releases. Though it could be any of these things, I would like to believe that it’s something about his target audience.
The protagonist Sasha is a walking contradiction — she’s connected to everyone through cellphones, computers and high technology. But because of censorship, she knows almost nothing about recent Chinese history: Tiananmen Square, or the Cultural Revolution. The Princess of Nebraska seems at home in this medium. If it gets watched bootleg, at home on streaming video feed, it targets the same people that wander through his movie: Young people unattached to tradition and looking for a new identity.