By Andrea Thompson
2004's “Saving Face” is a good film, and it almost makes you cry for the greatness it could have achieved. It's one of the only films that revolves around queer people of color, and in an immigrant community no less. It has a clear affection for that community, and how the people in it interact, but director and writer Alice Wu is also very aware just how strict its standards are for how people should live.
In New York City (because where else?) the Chinese-American Wilhelmina 'Wil' Pang (Michelle Krusiec) is a successful surgeon who's on a clear track to success. She's also a lesbian, but she doesn't dare reveal that to her traditional family. They share many of the characteristics other on-screen immigrant clans do. They fuss, they're deeply embedded and connected with others who also came to America, and they are set on Wil getting married to a nice boy of their choosing.
So Wil is hardly a fan of the mandatory gatherings at Planet China, where these pressures are magnified. But she does get something out of it, since that's where she meets Vivian (Lynn Chen), a ballet dancer who's more interested in the less prestigious world of modern dance. These two prove that with the right chemistry, standing in front of a junk food machine can be hot. Thankfully, they get together pretty quickly, but there's early signs that between the demands of Wil's career and her more closeted status is getting in the way of a good thing.
Wil's existence gets even more complicated when her widowed 48-year-old mother Hwei-Lan Gao (Joan Chen) just shows up on her stoop and basically bosses her way inside. Wil finds out what's really going on not from her, but on the phone with her grandma Wai Po (Guang Lan Koh) her Ma is pregnant and unwilling to say who the father is. Whoa. The situation is unusual to be sure, and revealing of some very messed up dynamics. Not only does Hwei-Lan still live with her parents, her stern father berates her, calling her a disgrace and a shame to them. He kicks her out of their home, and the family, until she finds herself a respectable husband. So Hwei-Lan moves in with Wil.
Wil's mother may have quietly acquiesced to her father's harsh words, but she has no problem ordering Wil around and redecorating her apartment. It also adds a few more obstacles in her budding relationship with Vivian, who wants more openness in their lives. Have to admit though, they're adorable together. Although their love scene together, which is shot beautifully, is still a little weird since Wil is wearing her ponytail the whole time. Does she ever take that thing out?
Of course, Hwei-Lan is dealing with her own difficulties, such as the pregnancy she decides to see through. When she also decides to start dating, it's interesting to see the dynamic flip, with Wil ordering her around. Although why Wil is going along with all this, and not discouraging her mother to marry a nice but unsuitable man that's been chosen for her is rather baffling.
Much of the frustration about “Saving Face” comes down to a certain...distance, shall we say in the directing. Even though the entire cast gives great performances, this reticence also keeps them apart. There's also abrupt cuts between Hwei-Lan's story and her mother's that can also be somewhat jarring to see. Not to mention the ending, which seems a bit too feel-good after the rest of the film delving into how cutting the traditional community can be.
Pretty much all of the issues in “Saving Face” can pretty much be boiled down to Wu's inexperience. Wu is from the tech world, and actually left her job at Microsoft to make this film, which is obviously inspired by her own experiences. Wu's instincts obviously lean more towards the technical side of filmmaking, but “Saving Face” is still an incredible first effort, showcasing Wu's unique voice and perspective. It should've led to far more, but this is Wu's only film to date. Thankfully, that should change, as Wu will be directing the upcoming Netflix film “The Half of It,” which is about a shy, bookish Chinese-American high school student who helps the school jock win over the girl she's also in love with. Here's hoping there won't be 15 (16? There's no release date yet) years until her next feature.