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Friday Film Review: Saving Face

Saving Face (2004)
Genre: GLBT, Asian Immigrant, Romance, Family
Grade: B

Yeah, you read the genre right. This one is truly a mixed bag but the magic is that first time director Alice Wu pulls it off so well. It’s got a great cast, wonderful location shots, a good score and best of all a top notch script for all to work with.

Surgical resident Wilhelmina ‘Wil’ Pang (Michelle Krusiec) heads off to Queens for yet another Friday night dance at what she calls “Planet China” during which she knows her widowed Ma (Joan Chen) will try and set her up with yet another Chinese son of one of her friends. Wil’s not interested in any of them except as friends but someone else catches her eye this particular night. Beautiful ballerina Vivian Shing (Lynn Chen) and Wil exchange glances but don’t get to talk until a few days later.

Vivian goes directly after what she wants but Wil still needs a little time to loosen up and accept the chance of a relationship. She’s also dealing with her mother moving in with her when her mother’s out of wedlock pregnancy is revealed causing Wil’s grandfather to throw his shameful daughter out of his house. Can Wil balance her career, her mother, her mother dating and seeing Vivian without losing her mind?

Alice Wu wrote the script as well as directed the film and since she’s of Chinese American descent as well as a lesbian, I would assume she knows what she’s talking about. After I watched the movie, I turned on the director’s commentary and enjoyed hearing Wu’s take on how she directed the film as well as tidbits about the culture being portrayed on screen. She says she wanted to show parts of NYC not often seen on screen as well as the perfect candy vending machine. You’ll have to watch the film to see how it’s incorporated into a flirting scene. The colors, lighting and shot selections are a visual delight.

Since Wil is supposed to be a busy surgical resident, I was glad to see that Wu had her be busy and make comments about lack of sleep. While I would have enjoyed seeing shots of Vivian in her dance world, I would guess budget constraints ruled that out.

I think the film is one that’s pretty open and accessible for people of all sexual persuasions. There is one sex scene between Wil and Vivian which is more tender than hot. They also share some kisses and apres sex cuddling but don’t look for raunch.

However, the lesbian relationship is not the solo in the film’s spotlight. There is also the plot thread about Wil’s Ma and how this pertains to her relationship with her elderly Chinese parents, her friends – aka the “Chinese biddies” (as Wil calls them) – , as well as the dating scene for middle aged women in NYC.

Ma isn’t telling who the father of her child is so her friends cut her socially as they worry about whether or not their husbands might have strayed with Ma. Her socially prominent father both worries about who will look after his daughter and her baby after he’s gone as well as feels shame in front of his peers for her actions. Wil’s lifestyle is getting cramped since Ma is now camping out in her apartment cooking Chinese food, commenting on Wil’s friends and watching Chinese soap operas.

As the film progresses, I noticed how Wu treats all her characters with dignity, gentle humor and compassion. No one is singled out to be the villain, the prat or the hero. No one’s lifestyle choices are either glorified or vilified. The situations simply “are” and we’re allowed to watch them unfold without being preached at. Some characters don’t accept Wil and Vivian’s relationship while others help foster it. Some characters are envious of Ma once the truth about her baby’s father is revealed while others are shocked.

Krusiac and Lynn Chen are wonderful to watch together as they “two steps forward and one step back” their relationship. Joan Chen is beautiful as always but she also gets to show Ma’s vulnerabilities while being exposed to NYC outside of the sheltered world she’s known. The scene before her first date lets her display her uncertainty at reentering the dating world at her age as well as showing Wil’s realization of her mother in this role.

I also love the mix of English and Mandarin (don’t worry, there are subtitles) as this mirrors what I used to hear while a former roommate of mine spoke with her Spanish mother on the phone.

“Saving Face” is a film that can be viewed on many levels. As a comedy, as a romance, as a view of immigrant society, as a family drama and as a GLBT film. The ending is more HFN though it has a slight touch of Hollywood “wrap up all the loose ends.” I’m disappointed to see that Alice Wu has only this film to her directing credit but I hope to eventually see more from her. In the meantime, check this one out for something special.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

16 Comments

  1. whey
    Oct 02, 2009 @ 12:08:36

    Lovely, thoughtful review. Going to check this out, thank you!

  2. MeganS.
    Oct 02, 2009 @ 13:42:55

    This is a favorite film of mine, and I’m so pleased to see it spotlighted!

  3. silvia
    Oct 02, 2009 @ 15:33:34

    I love this movie (probably my 2nd fav GLBT romance after the amazing m/m “Shelter”) and wish it could get more “out there” so it was neat to see you post a review! Your review pinpointed one of my fav things about it – how there are no eeeevil villians, just people.

  4. Jayne
    Oct 02, 2009 @ 17:06:44

    This is another fortuitous Netflix suggestion. I can’t even recall which film I had watched which made them recommend it to me but I’m glad I took the chance and checked it out.

  5. Darlynne
    Oct 02, 2009 @ 17:38:53

    I loved this film and hope it will reach a wider audience. It was outstanding for all the reasons you mentioned and I found myself thinking about the characters long after. As you said, it is very special.

  6. Jayne
    Oct 02, 2009 @ 17:43:47

    I originally watched it about 2 years ago then recently saw it again before I wrote this review. When I went to the IMDB to get character name info, I was amazed to see that Wu hasn’t directed another film yet. Which I guess goes to show how much I don’t understand Hollywood….

  7. galen
    Oct 03, 2009 @ 11:08:26

    I watched this movie a couple of years ago, but I still remember my impressions of it. I liked it, in general, but the subtitles bugged the hell out of me as I actually understood the Mandarin portions, and they were quite badly translated, which confused me since the script was obviously written by someone who understood both languages, so why on earth were the subtitles incorrect.

    Also, as I remember, the movie had smatterings of dialect as well as Mandarin, which is a bit confusing since I doubt many American Chinese learn both Mandarin and dialect, but I let that one go as I cannot confirm either way.

  8. Jayne
    Oct 03, 2009 @ 18:34:33

    I liked it, in general, but the subtitles bugged the hell out of me as I actually understood the Mandarin portions, and they were quite badly translated, which confused me since the script was obviously written by someone who understood both languages, so why on earth were the subtitles incorrect.

    You’d think subtitles would be easy but from the badly done ones of English language films that I’ve seen, it would appear not. I recently watched a French film and the director was complaining about how the English subtitles weren’t an accurate reflection of the dialogue. And he was in on the subtitling process! He told them that certain lines were wrong and told them what should be there and it was still not right.

    Also, as I remember, the movie had smatterings of dialect as well as Mandarin, which is a bit confusing since I doubt many American Chinese learn both Mandarin and dialect, but I let that one go as I cannot confirm either way.

    Maybe this is from the actors themselves? On the director’s commentary, Wu mentions that she got a lot of the secondary actors from open casting calls.

  9. Evecho
    Oct 05, 2009 @ 21:42:59

    Hey thanks for reminding me of this film. It was thoroughly enjoyable and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a gentle, good watch. Favourite part for me was Joan Chen being comical – who knew she could?

  10. Jayne
    Oct 06, 2009 @ 06:46:06

    @Evecho: Oh, isn’t she hilarious? I loved watching her in this film.

  11. wandergurl
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 15:37:15

    I loved this film when I saw it a few years ago. I love the humor and the way the culture is presented and mixed into the film. I thought the end was a bit convenient in the sense that wow, everyone accepted their relationship with not too many problems but other than that I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this film.

  12. Connie
    Oct 15, 2009 @ 01:21:41

    I was surprised to find how much I liked this movie when I watched it a few years back. I can’t even remember much of the plot until reading your post. I agree with galen about the dialect thing but I can’t recall the bad subtitles. It was a pretty interesting POV of chinese american society (being taiwanese myself). Our culture is still quite homophobic as compared to European and American societies. Like being gay is a BIG no-no, just like going to a psychologist.

    The best part of the movie is the title. “Face” is a pretty huge thing still persisting in our culture – like how rich people need to maintain certain standards when they throw parties – chinese girls and boys are expected to marry well (hopefully a doctor) and their family will be very happy, and then the parents can compare who’s got the better daughter/son-in-law. Everything in the movie really fitted well with the title. The main actress in the movie is Chinese American I believe and she won a couple awards in Hong Kong and Taiwan for this film. It was a nice and different film. Usually I’m not so keen on films portraying chinese people because it’s often exaggerated but this one was really real. I have a suggestion for you Jayne if you liked this one. You may have seen it but it’s called “Eat Drink Man Woman”. I think it’s all in chinese so it’s major subtitle reading~ it’s more chinese since the setting is not America, but it was a pretty good movie.

  13. Jayne
    Oct 15, 2009 @ 04:25:46

    @wandergurl: The ending is convenient all the way around. Not only from the immigrant society standpoint but also the GLBT one. In that respect, it reminded me a little of the ending of “Big Eden.” Sweet and heartwarming but when examined in the cold light of day, probably unrealistic. But like you, I enjoyed the film as a whole anyway.

  14. Jayne
    Oct 15, 2009 @ 04:34:27

    Connie, one part that amused me was when Wil is talking with the nurses about possible men for her mother to date and she says something like, “Ma would never date a Korean man” eg date outside her ethnicity. An ethnic Korean coworker of mine is married to an American WASP and she said whenever they travel to Korea, the disapproving looks she gets are from Koreans.

    I watched “Eat Drink Man Woman” a few years ago and loved it. I especially enjoyed the relationship between the father and the young girl form whom he makes lunch each day.

  15. PRIDE WEEK: Friday Film Review: If These Walls Could Talk 2 | Dear Author
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 04:00:20

    [...] I put this one in my Netflix queue because after enjoying “Saving Face” I was looking for another lesbian centered movie and this one seemed to have gotten fairly [...]

  16. Arwen
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 23:25:16

    I ran across this movie by chance a few years back. Watch it every time I can. Really love the mother character in this.

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