Wayne Wang’s “The Princess of Nebraska” – 2008 AAIFF Review

When Wayne Wang introduced his latest film during the opening night of the 31st Asian American International Film Festival in New York, he stated that he wanted to explore the new generation of Chinese women who knows little about the Tiananmen Square protests, let alone the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Judging from “The Princess of Nebraska,” his views of these young women are somewhat grim.

Based on a short story by Yiyun Li, Wang’s film explores a traumatic day in the life of a young woman from Beijing named Sasha (Ling Li). Shortly before leaving her hometown to attend college in Omaha, she had an affair with a Peking Opera student named Yang Semeng, and is now four months pregnant. Since she has some friends—one of whom is Yang’s male lover—in San Francisco, she has decided to fly there to get an abortion.

Sasha might be a courageous character, but her dominating qualities are self-absorption, childishness and disrespect. She steals, looks through other people’s personal letters, embarrasses everyone at a party, and keeps a diary that is full of cute stickers more suited for young teenagers. The distasteful nature of her character quickly becomes a major problem for this film, as it is sometimes hard to care about her fate. The other young Chinese women in “The Princess of Nebraska” are only marginally more sympathetic.

Nonetheless, Wang might have led us astray by focusing on young Chinese women in his introduction, as “The Princess of Nebraska” is at least as much about the concept of “moving on.” Early in the film, Sasha tells us that one of the first things she learned in America is the idea of “moving on.” The main narrative focuses not on Sasha’s upbringing in China, but rather on her clumsy struggle to “move on” from her pregnancy in an “ideal American” way. She texts the unresponsive Yang and tells him to forget about her, but she herself cannot let go of him. She staples the pages of her diary together so that any mention of her pregnancy disappears, but she later rips the staples out. Is it Sasha’s Chinese upbringing that makes her unable to just “move on?” Or is it just human nature? Wang does not really tell us. If it is the former, then his view of the new generation of Chinese women might not be so negative after all. Isn’t being able to deal with problems better than “moving on?”

Wang has jammed a lot of ideas into this 77-minute film, including discussions of the one-child policy, the Chinese government’s stance towards homosexuality, the Chinese underground in San Francisco, baby-trafficking and nontraditional family structures. The result is a film with many loose strands and unanswered questions. This is both a strength and a weakness. While one might wish for a tighter and more fully-developed narrative, the slightly-fragmented structure might be better at raising issues that viewers could, perhaps, want to discuss after they watch the film. At a time when directors of serious films often feel the need to create epics, “The Princess of Nebraska” is a breath of fresh air.

The Asian American International Film Festival runs at the Asia Society until Sun., July 19. For tickets, go to www.aaiff.org.