Saving Face is more than just a delightful romantic comedy about two Chinese-American dykes falling in love in between family dramas. It’s a clever meditation on the pull and push of generational change in immigrant communities.
When the younger generations begin to adopt the ways of the new country, the honour and pride of the oldies is given a shake, which is certainly what happens in debutante writer-director Alice Wu’s story of secret loves.
Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), a 28-year-old resident surgeon at a Manhattan hospital, visits her mother and grandparents in their New York suburban home each week, carefully fielding questions about who she is dating. Her grandparents, played by Jin Wang and Guang Lan Koh, escaped the Chinese Revolution and have an old world stoicism about them. Her widowed mother, Ma (Joan Chen), sets her up on ridiculous dates at the weekly Friday night Chinese social even though she sort of knows her daughter is gay.
Wil has tentatively begun a relationship with a beautiful ballet dancer Vivian (Lynn Chen) when Ma arrives on her doorstep, pregnant -“ but to whom she won’t say.
The baby bombshell throws a spanner in the works for everyone: Grandpa is concerned about saving the family honour -“ or saving face. Wil is under pressure from Vivian to come out to her mother. And Ma has become an outcast holed up in Wil’s flat watching Chinese soap operas on TV with Wil’s neighbour Jay (Ato Essandoh), who drops by for food and facials, while Wil joins her grandfather’s efforts to find a husband for her mother.
This bilingual film dances between the generations with such fluidity you know that Wu knows her subject matter extremely well although at times her script treats many of the ancillary characters as mere throwaways. Fleshing them out would have given the film a special layer of richness it currently lacks.
And rest assured that all comes good in Saving Face. There’s no other likely outcome in a film so happily wedded to its genre of romantic comedy. And that’s its own blessing in a way because it is high time lesbians of the Chinese diasporas had their moment on the big screen. Thankfully, debutant writer-director Alice Wu withstood the pressures placed upon her to change the sexuality and ethnicity of her characters. Her upbeat ending can only help open up family discussions about sexuality and why following one’s heart is just a fine thing to do.