Oct 2 2009
Saving Face (2004)
Genre: GLBT, Asian Immigrant, Romance, Family
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.