Review Date: 7.5.05
Now playing at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz, debut-director Alice Wu's film, Saving Face, seems to slot itself both in the so-called hyphenated American identity politics narratives (think The Joy Luck Club) and in the new queer cinema, where race and sexuality assume at least equal importance in the lives of United Statesian queer folks of color. For those who want something avant-garde or experimental, this isn't it. This movie's more in the tradition of those sweet stories of girl girl love that involve the closet, coming out, occasional difficulties, especially with one's parents, and a happy resolution where-thank goodness! -No one commits suicide or gets institutionalized or disowned.
Wil (Michelle Krusiec) is doing her surgical residence and caring for, coping with her Chinese now-single mom (played fabulously, as ever, by Joan Chen) and her grandparents, grandfather playing the role of patriarchal heavy and grandmother that of the irreverent, funny, wise, supportive and nurturing one. Vivian (Lynn Chen) recognizes the telltale signs and sets her sights on Wil. Neither woman is stereotypically lesbian looking in American popular cultural terms and neither of them gets pigeonholed the way many popular representations (think L Word) seem to feel the need to do. Instead, there's a much more realistic story of familial drama-Vivian realizes she has lent her heart to a girl who's just like her own surgeon father, while it turns out that Wil's mom is the troubled and deeply compelling center of her life. Here's where, if we want to talk gender, the movie also feels realistic to me: the butch Wil's life is taken up with attending to her nervous, beautiful, troubled mother, while the femme Vivian's heart sore is her distant dad. And Saving Face also tells the story of how each woman is different from the familial prop that establishes her as the object of the other's desire: though Wil may be caught up in her work and her family life, she is not distant and when push comes to shove, she shows up. Likewise, though Vivian is a dancer, gorgeous, feminine to the max, she is solid, stable, someone to lean on in ways Wil's mother could never be.
The movie's a comedy too, and its humor is satisfying, gentle, dry at times, and compassionate. Wil's main drama is being in the closet-her challenge is to come out. Vivian's main drama is that all her Chinese family and acquaintances expect and want her to be the ballerina she's in training for, but ultimately her true passion is modern dance. Heterosexuality and classical ballet turn out to be the twin representatives of "tradition" in the film, but even this cliché of modernity versus tradition is given a surprising twist when we find out that Wil's mom is nowhere near as traditional as one might imagine, and Vivian's dad is up front about his daughter's sexuality.
All in all, Saving Face is a thoroughly likeable movie, even if it doesn't really push the envelope, either filmically (though the music and songs are great) or from the point of view of plot. It's smart, funny, and talks about Chinese-American-ness in an understated non-didactic way. It manages to miss-though barely-that sappy tag of "heartwarming" by virtue of its healthily ironic sense of humor. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.