In 2004, Alice Wu released what would be her first and only film (for the moment), Saving Face. It tells the story of Wil (Michelle Krusiec), a closeted Chinese-American surgeon whose mother, Gao (Joan Chen), is trying to marry her to a man (any man, for that matter), and her relationship with Vivian, a dancer (Lynn Chen). Meanwhile, Gao gets pregnant without being married and is disowned by the family, forcing her to live with her daughter. It has been sixteen years since the release of Saving Face, but this May 1st, Alice Wu is back with a new coming-of-age film, The Half of It, which, like her first feature, will explore a lesbian love story and a Chinese-American family. But while we wait, it is time to look back fondly to her formative first film.
Saving Face, written by Wu herself, was inspired by her own coming out to her mother, becoming one of the only Hollywood films focused on Chinese-Americans, the other being The Joy Luck Club (1993), which actually appears in one scene. The main topic of the film, besides Wil and Vivian’s relationship – because this is a rom-com after all – is the concept of ‘face’, which, put simply, means to maintain appearances. This concept, quite established in Asian countries, is used especially when it comes to Wil and her mother, and serves as well to compare them to Vivian and her own family.
Throughout the film, Wil agrees to meeting men even though she likes women, and her mother agrees to marry a man so she doesn’t become a single mother. Both of these things are considered something to be ‘ashamed of’ and ‘harmful’ for their family reputation (again, ‘face’). In contrast, Vivian is out to her mother, who knows about their relationship and is ok with it. It is in the film’s only sex scene – yes, it is a shocker, a lesbian film that doesn’t revolve around sex and death – where the audience realises the differences between the Wil and Vivian. Wil meets men to please her mother, whom the audience soon learns actually knows that Wil is not straight.
Wil pretends, because what you don’t talk about doesn’t exist, and it’s easier sometimes. ‘Face’ is so embedded in Wil’s life that it stops her from having an open relationship with Vivian, who is out to her parents about her sexuality and doesn’t need to closet herself. In Vivian’s case, tension instead arises from her dancing career; she leans towards the modern styles, considered inferior by her father, rather than sticking to ballet, which would be more respected.
On the other hand, Gao gets pregnant and refuses to say who the father is, resulting in her family kicking her out. She gets excluded from her social circle and family, banning her from family gatherings and even checking on her mother when she is at the hospital. Vivian’s mother, on the other hand, is recently divorced, and becomes one of the main gossips at said gatherings. Gao’s shame forbids her from social circles, she gets isolated from her own life, while Vivian’s mother refuses to stay at home and goes to these meetings, despite knowing people will talk about her.
Queer cinema can be easily divided in two: those works written/directed by someone from the community, and those by someone who is not. The lack of representation of creators from the community makes the amount of stories told by and for LGBTQ+ people scarce at best, so a lot of the stories come from people outside the community. It doesn’t necessarily indicate value – there are plenty of good movies about queerness from non LGBTQ+ people – but the audience also ends up getting a lot of stories filled with death, bullying, and sexual exploitation. It narrows the narrative and experiences of a whole collective, especially when it comes to people of colour and the trans community, who often suffer the worst misrepresentation. If those are the only stories we see, then those are the only things we end up believing we can amount to.
Saving Face is a little safe haven. It’s the romantic comedy we deserve. It’s unapologetic in every way, and it is necessary for its uniqueness. When Alice Wu pitched the idea, producers told her to make it white and, hear me out, to cast Scarlett Johansson as Vivian (and look how far we’ve come since then…). Obviously, Wu refused. Saving Face works because it is influenced by Chinese culture and Wu’s experiences as a Chinese-American lesbian. Making her characters white wouldn’t have worked with this story at all. To tell a story about LGBTQ+ and women of colour without relying on violence and sex is refreshing. Lesbian cinema is flooded with films characterised by the male gaze that revolve on sexual interactions and/or toxic relationships (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, you are an angel and we’re thrilled to have you here). But Saving Face is just a sweet story about falling in love, about family, about culture, and about change and growth. It is acceptance, and breaking out of the cage to live your own life. It’s not high art, and it shouldn’t be. It’s been sixteen years, but Wu is finally back, and hopefully here to stay.
by Andrea de Lera
Andrea de Lera (she goes by her mother’s surname because it sounds better, sorry dad) is a graduate in English Studies and Communication from her hometown University of Oviedo (Spain) and spent a year at Leeds Uni. Someone told her once she was funny and she knew about movies and TV so she based her life around that. Her favorite movies include Singin’ In The Rain, Some Like It Hot, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or When Harry Met Sally. Find her on Twitter and IG @andreadelera, on Letterboxd or her blog