You don't need to be revolutionary to make something that resonates.
Saving Face is so touching, so moving in its
simplicity. Complimentary comparisons have been 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.
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
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 she 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 starts to
feel overwhelmed. The rapid shift back and forward between subtitled
Chinese and English serves to emphasise the cultural and emotional
bind Wil finds herself in.
At the end of her rope, 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 at
her situation because really, secretly, she’s still in love
with someone else. In the meantime Wil's closeted status starts
to wear thin, making Vivian feel like she and Wil are having some
kind of illicit affair.
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, incredibly attractive
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 a kind
of 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 personally
I revelled in every sappy, heartfelt 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, about love, about coming out, about achieving
personal happiness—and she says them all eloquently. Wu ploughs the
rich humour of her own remarkable cultural heritage, 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.
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