Film Review – Saving Face

Directed: Alice Wu

Writer: Alice Wu

Starring: Joan Chen, Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen 

Tagline: “A romantic comedy about right, wrong and everything in between.”

Trivia: Ma is 48 years old. When she and Wil go to the clinic, Ma’s number in the waiting room is also 48.

Long before Crazy Rich Asian there was Saving Face that gave us the pleasure of seeing another culture, and realizing that we are all humans sharing similar experiences, no matter from which background we come from

About a third of the way through Saving Face, a middle-aged Chinese-American woman wanders into a video store and tells the clerk, “China.”

He drearily points over to a shelf, where the camera pans across the predictably meager picks — The Last Emperor, The Joy Luck Club — before the titles gives way to the bustling porn section.

In spite of Asians making up an increasing part of the international film market, we still have hardly any mainstream films starring actresses of Asian ancestry (with the exception of Lucy Liu), but we see relatively few Asian women stars in American films–and never more than one at a time.

Saving Facewhich focuses on three Chinese American women all of whom are played by Chinese American actresses and a whole host of other American Chinese cast including the writer and director of the movie Alice Wu, which makes it a celebration of diversity.

The diversity of this movie was not limited only to the culture but also the topics that it raised, which included queer people and their families and the tension between tradition and one’s personal choice.

There’s a wedding, a death and two love affairs in Saving Face, and they all come as a surprise. This enjoyable film about love and honour is poignant and wonderfully observed, as it explores the many layers in the lives of three generations of Chinese.

Punctuated by its wry humour and appealing characters, the script evolves smoothly and we quickly understand the dilemma of the protagonist.

A heartfelt story about tradition, love and honour, this is a film about mothers, daughters and matters of the heart

Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), Wil for short, is an up-and-coming Manhattan surgeon who, is a semi-closet lesbian. Her traditional Chinese family – so traditional that they speak to her in Mandarin even when she answers them in English — calls her back to Flushing for community singles dances every Friday night.

This “dip in the Chinese gene pool,” as Wil puts it, is useless for her but harmless enough. She’s not interested in meeting any of the men on parade there, but it’s a chance to see her college-professor grandfather (Jin Wang), progressive grandmother (Guang Lan Koh) and their daughter, Wil’s own widowed, youthful and amazingly pretty, mother (Joan Chen).

This routine is shattered when Wil’s mother discovers that she is pregnant at 48 and refuses to name the father. Disgraced, she is exiled to Manhattan to stay at Wil’s apartment.

The timing couldn’t be more inconvenient for Wil, who has just begun a cautious affair with Vivian Shing (Lynn Chen), a flirtatious, sexually forthright ballet dancer who has interrupted her ballet career to venture into modern dance.

The diversity in characters is done in a fantastic way and the contrast between them allows us to see a full picture of strong women in their different forms.

Joan Chen as “Ma” is a first-generation working class (she works in a hair salon), middle age woman, keeping to the old country mortality, who is also sexy and vulnerable. That type of character we rarely see on screen and the performance of Chen is so magnificent you wish to see more of her. You might even forgive her homophobic side.

Wil and Vivian allow us to see the line between challenging the old morality and wanting to retain the familial comforts of ethnicity.

Wil can still go home to a world she knows, even if it frustrates her. Vivian seems to come from a more yuppified family, and we sense that she was pushed into greatness, whereas Wil possibly attained it in spite of her family.

Wil speaks Mandarin fluently; Vivian hardly speaks it at all. Vivian is modern; Wil likes to think she’s modern but hasn’t escaped her upbringing. Vivian is art, Wil is science.

Both deal with the body, though in one of the best scenes, Vivian tries to teach Wil how to fall without hurting herself and Wil is too clenched and uptight to move.

The scene is the movie in microcosm: you have to let yourself fall, and risk pain, in order to get anywhere.

Verdict – 5/5 Stars in my book


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