INTERVIEW: Alice Wu Talks ‘Saving Face’


It’s not much of a stretch to say Ms. Wu is much smarter than your average bear. My time with her was far too short (I could have used a week or two!) but highly informative. Her upcoming film Saving Face (review here) tackles cultural, sexual, and generational differences. I hope you’ll find her as interesting as I did:

Q: You’ve got to be proud with the way the film turned out;

Alice: I am. I am really proud. It’s so funny because I’m also so nervous because it opens soon in New York and Los Angeles. So we’re waiting for the reviews. I end up emailing my actors, my producers just to say, you know, I realize we’re about to open and waiting for the reviews to come out, but it kind of hits me how, in a way, unimportant all of that is. Because the reality is I know there will be people who like the film, and people who don’t like the film, and that’s fine. But I loved making this film and I’m really proud of what all those people did. And I loved every minute of getting to know them better; they’re like my family now.

Q: In other words, you had something to say, and so what critics think of it sort of beside the point.

Alice: The one sad thing would be if I didn’t think I did the best I could. I totally see room for improvement, maybe not with this film, but because I’m a first time filmmaker who didn’t go to film school, there’s a lot for me to keep learning. I’m just saying this is the best I could do at this time. And so, if you don’t like it at least I know it’s not from me not trying hard enough. There’s always going to be people who don’t like anything.

Q: I think the way you dealt with the subject matter was so friendly that people will find it approachable.

Alice: The thing is it’s not a cynical film; I’m not a cynical person. And with critics it’s tougher, I think they like cynical things, or they’re like this isn’t pushing the boundaries of cinematic language. But I’m not trying to push the boundaries; I’m just trying to tell a good story.

Q: Saving Face seems to be a film based on conflict of age, culture and sexuality. Was there a message you were trying to get out?

Alice: I’m not a message movie writer but I think it’s inevitable that if you’re telling a story you’re trying to say something. You often don’t know what the message is until after you make the film. I wrote if for my mother initially. I wasn’t a filmmaker, my background is computer science. I was at Microsoft as a program manager, not even thinking about being a filmmaker. I was thinking about writing my first novel so I wrote a two page treatment for a novel and thought, maybe this is a better film. So I decided to write it as a screenplay. As I was writing the story I wanted to say something to my mom, because she’d been treating her life as if the most important things in her life all had to do with me. Like anything she hoped for, she hoped for me. And I thought, she’s only 48, that’s too young to feel that way! It would be so great if she could feel like her best days are ahead. I thought it would be interesting to write a story where the mother is like that. You think initially this is the daughter’s story, but it’s the mother who messes up rather spectacularly. So I kind of started there. I guess the message is no matter who you are, whether you are straight and white, or gay and Chinese or black and bi or young or old, I think basically everyone wants to love. And I personally think that can start at any point in your life you want it to. So that’s the message. That there are so many complexities is just a reflection of what modern day life is like, especially in urban America.

Q: So the relationship of Wil, the female lead, with her mother has a lot of you in it?

Alice: Of course. Some parts are fictional, I didn’t grow up in Flushing, my mom speaks perfect English and shops at Costco, I grew up in Northern California. But emotionally, yeah.

Q: Did all of the leads speak Mandarin?

Alice: No. Joan did, she lives here but she was born in China. Michelle didn’t but I recorded the Mandarin lines and she listened and took Mandarin lessons. Her part is supposed to be accented because she’s growing up Chinese-American. And Vivian doesn’t speak at all, but the intention with her character was to have her speak very little because she comes from a much more assimilated family.

Q: It seems like Michelle’s persona changes with the switching of languages.

Alice: That’s intentional. There were two reasons I’d have her speak Mandarin. The first was when her mother was stonewalling her and she’d switch to Mandarin to try and get through to her. Or she’s trying to ingratiate herself to her mother.

Q: I noticed you did a pan shot of Joy Luck Club when the mother is in a video store.

Alice: And The Last Emperor, yeah.

Q: Was that a subtle dig?

Alice: Not at the Joy Luck Club, but it was a kind of commentary on what most people know about Asian film, most people can name like five Asian films if that. The reality is your choices are that or Rush Hour 2. It was a little bit of a joke.

Q: It seems like you care about each character, even when they are making mistakes.

Alice: Well, that’s the point, to show the characters with flaws. You so rarely get to see Asian American characters on screen, and when you do they are often very flat because they have perfect S.A.T.’s or they are the medicine man or something. But if they are going to be romantic leads they need to have flaws. One of the mother’s flaws is she’s lived in such an insular community that she has judgments about her daughter’s sexuality.

Q: Do you feel like Chinese Americans are becoming more homogenized culturally?

Alice: It’s tough to say, because what is authentic Chinese culture? I think the enclave in Flushing (the setting of movie) is authentic, but it’s only one branch. In this film I tried to show a spectrum. Some of the Chinese American parents in this film don’t care if their daughter is gay, some do. I think when you have immigrants coming to this country, and I don’t think this is only Chinese, I think this applies to anyone; they often tend to be more socially conservative then even the parent company. They show up with a set of social morays for how they feel a person should behave and then they hang on to them because it forms their identity. They think, well this is what being Greek means, or this is what being Irish means. This is how we do it. Meanwhile, the parent country is still evolving. So you end up with groups that are very socially conservative.

Q: But as the generations go on and evolve…

Alice: Yeah, in that sense it’s like, I’m born here, I’m Chinese American, but I’m not a traditional Chinese girl. But who’s to say that I’m not authentically Chinese American? Because I am. What is American even? The definition of “American” changes.

Q: In Saving Face it seems like your characters struggle with this notion of deserving love. Would you say most people feel like they don’t deserve it?

Alice: Absolutely. That’s why I don’t think this is a “gay” movie or even an “Asian” movie, I think it just a very normal love story. People say after ten minutes of watching it they forget that the faces are Chinese, or the leads are gay, and they just see people who are in love.

Q: What projects do you have coming up in the future?

Alice: I would love to tell you I have five projects lined up that I’m trying to figure out. But there are a few things I’d like to write, I just don’t know when they’ll be ready. I’m also getting sent a lot of stuff, a lot of scripts, but I think the idea is if I like them I can go audition for them, go fight for them. But I’ve been so focused on getting this film off the ground. I can look at the future two ways, as a passion or as a career. I just have faith that the career will work itself out if I stay passionate about the things I love. The worst case scenario is I’ll just write something myself, however long it takes. I feel like it’s important to keep learning. I want to pick a project I really love because directing takes a lot out of you, but I also want it to be commensurate where I’m pushing myself and learning. I finally found something I love to do!