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Retro-mad film review: Saving Face (US, 2005)

The story:

SavingFacePosterWilhelmina “Wil” Pang (the talented Taiwanese-born, Chinese American actor Michelle Krusiec) is a workaholic, up and coming New York doctor whose Chinese mother (hilariously played by one of China’s top actors, Joan Chen)  is in denial about her being gay. Thus, Wil juggles time between work,  Chinese-American parties, dodging unwanted arranged dates with Chinese American men, medicinal herbs to improve her chi and marriage prospects and a mom who constantly nags her about marriage, her clothes, appearance and pretty much everything else. Into this frenetic existence enters the lovely and wildly sexy (I just had to put that in) Vivian Shing (Lynn Chen), who’d met Wil when they were kids and has not forgotten her since, and a shocking revelation about Wil’s mother. This sudden and surprising revelation is that Wil’s some fortysomething widow of  a mother is suddenly pregnant, causing shame and loss of face to their family and thus is subsequently  thrown out and disowned by Wil’s grandfather.Wil has no choice thus but to take in her mother. It is these two events that turn Wil’s comfortable existence upside down. As her relationship with Vivian blossoms, Wil’s mother “Chinesifies” (=insert grin here=) Wil’s life, from changing her entertainment choices (Chinese soap opera marathon viewing), redecorating her apartment, to monitoring her every move, to following her around (there’s a funny scene in the subway to illustrate this point) vivian shingand so on. This puts a strain in her relationship with Vivian, who wants something much more serious from commitment-phobic, career-centric Wil. To ease the increasing tension in her life, Wil arranges blind dates for her mother – which is kind of giving her mother a taste of her own medicine. In the end, mother and daughter are forced to confront,  accept and respect each other’s choices, lifestyles, space and boundaries.

This is one of my favorite lesbian movies of all time. It’s not so much a rom-com film as a journey of self-discovery and coming to terms with one’s identity, sexuality and choices. There is an interesting symmetry and simplicity in the film, nothing feels contrived or forced. This is largely due to the fact that first-time director, Alice Wu, goes old school and shows a simple, linear story littered with Chinese-American cultural references and tidbits, as well as successfully coaxing nuanced performances from her leads. She has perfectly captured the Asian culture, and how it has assimilated with one American, and succeeds in making a true Asian-American film that appeals to Asians as well. I had watched this film with Filipino friends and Asian friends (Korean and Taiwanese) and we had great fun seeing the saving face3similarities and differences between and amongst Asian cultures. The doting, nagging, meddlesome, Asian mom with a penchant for bothering you about your singlehood, grandkids, marriage, and soap opera obsession is universal, for example. Those middle-aged, married Chinese couples who get together to dish the dirt and gossip on Chinese friends and acquaintances during parties are classic as well. The other cultural nuances are spot on as well.

The other thing that this film captures well is the relationship that Wil has with her mom and her relationship with Vivian. Wil’s struggle to be an obedient daughter at the risk of jeopardizing a promising and burgeoning relationship with her girlfriend is something that that I believe some Asians (whether straight or gay) can relate to. Alice Wu has also captured quite perfectly how girlfriends (^^) think. There is an interesting scene in the film when Wil misses Vivian’s birthday party, and Wil is standing outside her door. Wil asks if she can come in, Vivian says, “I don’t know” and when Wil turns around, about to leave, somewhat dejected, disappointed and a little sad at being turned down, Vivian suddenly says, “Where are you going?” to which Wil says she is leaving and Vivian says, “I didn’t say you should leave”. That scene, more than anything else, sums up how crazy it can be having a femme girlfriend (^^). This is even more confusing when you have an Asian saving face4girlfriend. But anyway, I love the love story that develops between Wil and Vivian, there is something sweet and tender and dare I say it, terribly romantic about their scenes together.

A favorite scene is the dinner scene Wil has with her girlfriend and her mother, a scene so wrought with tension that you forget it’s a movie and cringe when you remember your own traumatizing meetings with your girlfriend’s parents (my take on this? Mothers are judgmental whether it’s a straight or gay relationship their child has) – of which I’ve had the traumatizing privilege of going through (almost like  a rite of passage as it were).

Alice Wu keeps the pace of this film light and breezy -there are no scenes that are dragging or cringe-worthy, everything seamlessly integrated to come up with a coherent whole – a love letter, if you will, to the Chinese-American community. The characterization is well-rounded and nuanced and every actor plays each one so well that in the end you are invested in these characters more than you will realize and find yourself rooting for each one’s happy ending.

Overall, this is a sweet, charming film brimming with positivity. Oscar fodder it isn’t, but  it is one of the first American lesbian films to veer away from the coming out storyline and into the real world – where the lesbian is not just defined by her sexuality, but is a real, normal person who has other things to  contend with: career, family, cultural pressure, relationships and a bigger society that continually oscillates between tolerance and denial of her existence. But this is done in a non-preachy, entertaining way, and this is where this film succeeds, where others haven’t. This is a film that shouldn’t be missed.

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