Film, 2005, 5 stars
Written and Directed: Alice Wu
You don't need to be revolutionary to make something that resonates. Saving Face is so touching, so moving in its simplicity. Complimentary comparisons were made with other films that have played the culture-clash card well, such as The Wedding Banquet, Bend it Like Beckham and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This may be a big call, but I think Saving Face is better than all three of these films.
Saving Face deserves the same mainstream success all of these independent films have enjoyed. Treading on a little well-trodden, romantic comedy genre ground doesn’t at all diminish the originality and freshness of the film. First-time director Alice Wu has been dubbed the lesbian Ang Lee, and there are far worse things to be called, especially if this is your debut feature.
The story centres around brilliant young cosmetic surgeon Wilhelmina Pang (Michelle Krusiec), who doesn’t discuss the fact that she is gay with her mother (Joan Chen), even though Ma knows very well having walked in on Wil and a lover two years before. In serious denial, Ma keeps trying to match-make Wil anyway, and Wil goes along with it because she's a good Chinese daughter. It is at a community mixer that Wil has attended to keep her mother happy (where the dance floor is like an hilarious form of speed dating) that Wil sees Vivian (Lynn Chen) for the first time. The attraction between them is intense and immediate.
Vivian is the daughter of Wil’s boss. She’s a talented ballerina with dreams of breaking into modern dance. While Wil is shy and introverted, Vivian is sexy, knows what she wants and how to get it. She pursues Wil, breaking down her defenses bit by bit until finally they begin a tentative but steamy romance.
One day Ma turns up on Wil’s doorstep. She’s pregnant and she’s not saying who the father of the baby is. Ma has been thrown out of her father’s house in shame and the burden suddenly falls on Wil to help her. Between her demanding mother, her backbreaking job and her intense new romance Wil is overwhelmed. The rapid shift back and forward between subtitled Chinese and English serves to emphasise the cultural and emotional bind Wil finds herself in.
Wil decides that the answer to her problems is to try and marry her mother off. The mother and the daughter have a rapid role reversal as Wil sends Ma off on a succession of bad dates, all of which make Ma more and more depressed because secretly she’s still in love with someone else, the father of her baby. In the meantime, Wil's closeted status and workaholic ways start to wear thin with Vivian.
In true, bittersweet, romantic comedy style the lovers suffer a rift, Ma backs herself into an emotional corner, the Pang family suffers a devastating loss and Wil is left to try and unite all the different elements with interesting results. She makes a lot of mistakes, but always has the best of intentions. In the end she's forced to realise that saving face isn’t half as important as being happy, and that being happy means standing up for what you want, and who you love.
Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen are talented women who have sizzling chemistry. From their first eye contact to their first date, through their blossoming sexual relationship, the two actresses don’t put a foot wrong. While Krusiec has a fairly extensive list of appearances, Saving Face was apparently the first script Chen ever read when she decided to pursue acting seriously. She couldn't have asked for a better beginning.
Chen has a wonderful, sardonic humour and excellent comic timing, while Krusiec lights up every scene with befuddled naiveté, like she can't quite believe any of this is happening to her. Joan Chen as Ma gives the film an experienced, firm anchor. Her dignity and strength mask a deeper vulnerability that she gives us only calculated glimpses of. On top of all that, she’s never looked more beautiful.
I laughed, I cried, I was surprised and yet had all my expectations met. Perhaps in the last ten minutes or so everything is tied up in too neat a package—I can see Wu receiving criticism for her overly optimistic conclusion—but because the rest of the film is so strong, I revelled in every sappy moment of it. After all, straight audiences get this kind of soul fulfilling, romantic fantasy all the time. It’s not like the lesbian film canon is bursting at the seams with romantic comedies. Our cinematic happy endings are way overdue, realistic or not.
In Saving Face, Alice Wu has many things to say—about family, love, coming out, achieving personal happiness—and she says them all eloquently. Wu ploughs the rich humour of her own remarkable cultural heritage without disrespecting it. She mixes it with the angst and excitement of coming out, blends in some cross-generational confusion and produces a story that is at once strange and yet completely familiar.
It truly feels, when all is said and done, like the things that drive us and divide us at any age are ultimately the same, the only real differences are in the fine print. Damn I hate to gush, but just see it. See it now.