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A lot of my favourite things from the mid-2000s haven’t held up, but here’s one that has: Saving Face, an underappreciated lesbian romantic comedy that was way ahead of its time – or maybe it’s more that the rest of the genre is still lagging behind.
Saving Face was the feature film debut for writer and director Alice Wu, a Taiwanese-American lesbian who drew, in part, from her own story. It would be 16 years before she saw the release of her second film, The Half of It, which came out on Netflix last year.
Michelle Krusiec plays Wilhelmina Pang, or Wil, a closeted young doctor in New York. She’s cute in a slouchy, ponytailed, running-for-the-subway-in-sweatpants-while-things-fall-out-of-her-backpack sort of way. Her mother Hwei-Lan, played by the always magnetic Joan Chen (Twin Peaks, Home Song Stories), keeps trying to set her up with eligible bachelors at Chinese community events. As a reluctant but dutiful daughter, Wil goes along with the farce but dodges the would-be suitors. Instead, one of these awkward buffet dinners leads her to Vivian Shing (Lynn Chen, no relation), a dancer who’s on a sabbatical from the New York City Ballet as she follows her passion for contemporary dance, disappointing her surgeon father who also happens to be Wil’s boss.
What follows could be a stock-standard story of star-crossed young lesbians fighting for love while a narrow-minded community closes in on them. I’ve seen a hundred versions of that story at queer film festivals, with just the setting and hairstyles changed, and not all of them are bad. But that’s not the story here. Wu adds a second plot in which Wil’s ma moves in with her after falling pregnant. As a 40-something widow who has not remarried, Hwei-Lan finds herself shunned by her community when the news gets out, but she refuses to say who the child’s father is. Soon, Hwei-Lan’s father is also trying to marry her off, and so begins another parade of hideously ill-matched bachelors. Wil is shoehorned into playing matchmaker, and mediating between her mother and grandfather.
As an aside, people will try to persuade you that “saving face” is a peculiarly Chinese concept, but I’m not convinced. Authoritarian patriarchs everywhere are obsessed with their moral reputation over their ethical conduct. They rarely take kindly to being questioned or corrected. So often, it’s daughters whose freedom is traded for face. In fact, I was intrigued to see that a new lesbian romcom, Happiest Season, deals with these same issues of honour, reputation and repression in a white American family.
In Saving Face, the parallel mother-daughter stories elevate the film, offering a refreshing tale of queer-straight solidarity against patriarchy and a repudiation of fear, shame, pride and prejudice. All the characters are flawed – bigoted, domineering, gutless – but none feel entirely villainous. Jin Wang is particularly impressive as the officious grandpa, bringing an endearing vulnerability to his performance even when his actions are callous. With his stubbornness, tai chi practice, and poetic turns of phrase, he embodies a familiar archetype of the scholarly Chinese patriarch.
The dialogue flows naturally between English, Mandarin and Shanghainese, and acidic jokes hole-punch light into the heavier scenes. The film satisfies as a romcom. It’s got all the elements: the meet-cute, the banter, the flirting over a vending machine (a motif that Wu returned to in The Half of It), the unspoken intimacies and the slightly surprising match. The chemistry between Wil and Vivian is believable and heightened with the judicious use of a Cat Power cover of Lou Reed.
Nowadays, there’s much more appreciation for diverse stories and filmmakers in the romcom genre, which is exciting to see. Everyone needs something fluffy now and then. But while big-budget, star-studded films such as Crazy Rich Asians and Happiest Season were released to much fanfare, Saving Face opened at just six cinemas when it came out in the US in 2005, following its premiere the year before at the Toronto international film festival. Wu faced predictable struggles when making the film, too: she told the New York Times that studio executives wanted her to make the lead characters white, or straight, and asked for less Mandarin.
Over the years, Saving Face has become a staple of the gaysian cinematic diet. I feel incredibly lucky that this film exists. It’s surreal, as a queer person of Shanghainese heritage, to hear my mother tongue – which appears in so little media – in a lesbian romcom of all places. As we head into the Year of the Ox, I reckon this is the perfect movie to celebrate family and community while also challenging the poisonous dynamics that continue to prevail. Both the story and Wu’s filmmaking career might also teach us something about patience, determination, and knowing when to put a hoof down.
• Saving Face is available to buy or rent as VOD on YouTube/Apple/Google Play in Australia. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here
Source: The Guardian
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