Film Review: Saving Face (2004)
As many of you hopefully know by now, Crazy Rich Asians is hitting theaters on August 15. That mega-complicated review will be coming v v v soon *wink wink*. And actually, August seems to be a very shiny month for (East) Asian American media with Searching and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before among others premiering this month as well. But while on the topic of Asian American films, I wanted to bring attention to another special little film, one that is a staple in Asian American independent cinema, and one that is frankly, so underrated. That movie is called Saving Face. The phrase “saving face” refers to the idea of maintaining a sense of dignity when bad things happen so as to not look bad in front of your peers. This is apparently a pan-East Asian social concept that I didn’t even realize was a thing because it’s been so ingrained into my cultural DNA.
Directed by Alice Wu, Saving Face centers the stories of a Chinese/Chinese American mom and daughter duo as they try to “save face” as it were in their conservative Chinese American community in New York City. Why do they need to save their faces? Because Wil, the daughter, played by Michelle Krusiec, is a closeted surgeon and Gao, the mom, played by the esteemed Joan Chen, has gotten pregnant out of wedlock and refuses to say who the father is. It’s a charming little movie that touches on topics of cultural expectations, coming out, mother-daughter relationships, and more. Perhaps what I like most about this movie is also the fact that it feels so authentic. In my opinion, authenticity is a convoluted subject when discussing representation because everyone is undoubtedly different. For example, to one person, Fresh Off The Boat may feel super authentic to their experience, but to me, it doesn’t. Similar to the family dynamics portrayed in Spa Night or even Ping Pong Playa, just the language and family expectations in Wil and Gao’s relationship was enough to solidify this film’s standing as one of my favorite Asian American movies.
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Wil is already a successful surgeon (the dream of so many Asian immigrant parents) and lives on her own (a noted difference from her mom who remains living with her own father as Asian families typically do) when she meets a pretty dancer named Vivian (portrayed by my fav, Lynn Chen). Their chemistry is so charming and adorable and there’s a private scene in which Vivian lightly approaches Wil to try and kiss her, with the top of their heads basking in the subtle lighting, and Wil of course freaks out and decides to simply, fall. It’s so cute. It’s a marked difference from the way Wil refuses to kiss her in public out of fear of “losing face” later on in the film in the midst of a potential break up. That particular scene is so upsetting and speaks to the wide array of emotions that Wu has captured in this film. Saving Face is quite revolutionary if you think about it as it features a Chinese American lesbian couple that not only passes the Bechdel test, but also is not sexualized for the male gaze.
And on the other side of that, Wil must also navigate her changing relationship with her mom, who has since moved in with her after getting kicked out from her father’s for being pregnant. It’s interesting to see their relationship go from parent-child to almost that of a friendship as they rely on each other to save each others’ faces, and especially while Wil is at that tender age of mid-twenties. Wil attempts to set up blind dates for Gao so she can find a baby daddy, but it’s oddly liberating to see Gao not only reject most of them, but also have it be revealed that her real baby daddy is actually the MUCH younger son of one of the elderly community members. In a weird way, Wil and Gao’s experiences serve as mirrors of each other as they both have something to hide (that is, unconventional love) from their conservative cultural communities. This inevitably brings them together and transforms their own relationship to each other. The film poster for Saving Face is quite similar to the final shot of The Graduate in which the ending signified a somber shift of tone as to “what happens now”; and, as if in a more hopeful alternate universe, that is honestly the most perfect way to describe Wil and Gao at the end of the film.
Saving Face is my favorite type of film and a great blueprint, I think, for the kinds of Asian American stories I want to see more of going forward. Stories that center the humanity and lived experiences of its people while their cultural backgrounds serve to inform and contextualize the story. It's not overly preachy but is still undoubtedly grounded in telling a story about queer women of color. It’s got that early 2000’s-esque feel of a small-town story, mixed with a little bit of rom-com, a little bit of scandal, and a whole lot of heart. Though this isn’t technically mumblecore, I like to think it is another kind of mumblecore in that it’s about a twenty-something year old navigating her life through all the romantic and familial obstacles thrown at her, and coming out at the end (in more ways than one) in a more hopeful position.