Michelle Krusiec as Wil
Joan Chen as Ma
Lynn Chen as Vivian Shing
Jin Wang as Wai Gung – Grandpa
Guang Lan Koh as Wai Po – Grandma
Jessica Hecht as Randi – Hospital Co-Worker
Ato Essandoh as Jay – Neighbor
David Shih as Norman
Brian Yang as Little Yu
Nathanel Geng as Stimson Cho
Mao Zhao as Old Yu
Louyong Wong as Dr. Shing
Clare Sum as Mrs. Wong
Qian Luo as Mrs. Shing
Richard Chang as Stephen
Kissing Jessica Stein meets The Joy Luck Club in Alice Wu’s imperfect romantic comedy, which completely wins you over by the end, which is all that really matters.
Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), known as “Wil,” is a 28 year-old Chinese-American woman trying to juggle her career as a surgeon while trying to have some kind of social life. When her Chinese mother (Joan Chen), who everyone calls “Ma”, gets pregnant and is ousted by her own father, she moves in with Wil, who must try to keep her newfound relationship with the beautiful dancer Vivian (Lynn Chen) a secret from her mother.
The latest trend in independent filmmaking is about the Asian immigrant experience in America, particularly with how the younger generation deals with their traditional elders. It’s not exactly a new subject matter, as Asian filmmakers like Wayne Wang have been doing it for years, but now there’s a new generation of Asian-American women giving them a more modern spin. A few months ago, Bertha Ba-Sa Pan’s Face dealt with the differences between an Amerasian teen and her traditional Chinese mother, as played by Bai Ling. The similar name of Alice Wu’s film Saving Face might make one think it’s more of the same, but the subject matter is given a decidedly different spin, firstly by setting the story within the realm of the situational romantic comedy, but then using it to deal with the problems of being a lesbian in a highly judgmental Asian society.
The characters are introduced quickly and efficiently, as Wil ends her long shift at the hospital to go out to Flushing, the Queens alternate to Chinatown, to attend a weekly social gathering at the behest of her mother. The idea is to set Wil up with a nice guy, but Ma isn’t aware that Wil doesn’t swing that way. Instead, Will is interested in a gorgeous dancer named Vivian, whofar too coincidentally–is the daughter of her boss at the hospital. It’s not long before the roles are reversed, as the middle-aged Ma learns she’s pregnant, and is kicked out of the house by her own father. After Ma moves in with her, Will must try to find a nice man to marry her mother, while trying to nurture her budding relationship with Vivian, all the while keeping it a secret from Ma. This leads to the type of situational humor that works so well in Hollywood-made romantic comedies, but takes a while to get used to in this circumstance.
The main thing you’re likely to get out of Saving Face is that it’s so nice to have Joan Chen back. She gives a very full performance as Ma, and it’s particularly surprising to see how well she handles the comic aspects of the role. Her makeup and wardrobe people should be commended for doing such a fine job making her look dowdy at first, but then absolutely gorgeous when she starts going on dates with one loser after the next. It’s hard to believe that she’s in her late ’40s, because she looks so amazing.
Similarly, the less experienced Michelle Krusiec is quite a discovery, and she does a great job with every aspect of a very full role that involves being able to do comedy, drama and romance, sometimes all at once. There doesn’t seem to be very much chemistry between her and her love interest, played by Lynn Chen, so the romance seems forced as they try to get to know each other. While some might be uncomfortable with a romantic comedy about a lesbian relationship, guys should be able forgive it due to the rather steamy love scene between the two actresses. On the other hand, the scenes between Chen and Krusiec are all excellent, and you really start to believe their relationship as mother and daughter.
Like far too many first time filmmakers, Wu tries to fit too many ideas and subplots into Saving Face, as it bounces between Wil’s relationship with Vivian and her Ma, as well as Ma’s conflict with her own father. While they do add quite a bit to the story and giving depth to the characters, it makes for a rather unfocused film. The other problem is how inconsistent the movie looks from one scene to the next, which really is the fault of the cinematographer. Fortunately, both of these problems fade as the story goes along and things come together with a number of truly touching sequences towards the end that make up for some of the earlier ones that don’t work as well.
The Bottom Line:
You have to wonder who this movie is for, because the experience of being an Asian lesbian seems so specialized and singular. Because of this, it takes some time to get used to Saving Face, but you may find that a lot of the situations are surprisingly universal. If you like romantic comedies and are somewhat open-minded, this is a truly original and enjoyable one.
Saving Face opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.