Wilhelmina (Wil) Pang is a young woman living in Flushing, New York. She’s intelligent, beautiful, and destined to be chief of surgery by the time she’s 40. Wil is also second-generation Chinese American, and when her mother suddenly and inexplicably decides to move in with her, there’s no question that she’ll not allow it: “Do you know what kind of Karmic hell I'd pay as a Chinese daughter who didn't take in her own mom?”
Wil’s mother, Hwei-Lan, has a secret. When she arrives on Wil’s doorstep, she’s in tears and carrying a huge package of diapers. She’s pregnant, but she’s refused to tell her parents (with whom she’s been living) who the father is. A 48-year-old, pregnant, Chinese widow is too much for Hwei-Lan’s parents — especially her father — to take, and he temporarily disowns her: “Get out of this house. Don't come back until you have a husband to match the child.”
Wil has a secret too. She’s a lesbian, and — for her mother’s sake — she’s been behaving otherwise for years. But shy, uptight Wil has recently met Vivian, a flirtatious, outgoing, dancer. Vivian teaches and dances ballet, but she longs to leave that classical, traditional form behind and dance modern — a clear mirror of Wil’s internal struggles. Vivian also wants to openly date, and even meet Wil’s mother. Suddenly, Wil’s nontraditional romantic life is fast converging with her decidedly traditional domestic one. And her reaction is to do what comes natural, what she was raised to do: put her mother’s desires before her own.
In Saving Face, writer/director Alice Wu presents to us the difficulties with which younger generations struggle when old and new cultures clash, and she’s done it in an engaging way that gently teases those who cling to the past, while neither shying away from — nor disrespecting — long, beloved traditions.
As a rule, I don’t enjoy most comedies. There are some amazing, genius comedies out there, of course, and I love them, but I’m more of a fan of drama, angst, sex, and violence. That being said, I enjoyed Saving Face. It’s sweet and fun, at times quite touching, and the acting is superb. Joan Chen is in this film. Joan Chen.
And the chemistry between Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen — two (by all accounts) straight actresses — is natural and genuine. The affection between them is even more so.
Two things that bothered me:
- Vivian is a ballet dancer, a good enough dancer that she is offered a spot with the Paris Opera Ballet. Yet, she smokes and eats hotdogs seemingly every other day.
- The back of the DVD container has a spoiler. A big one.
If you’re a fan of romantic comedies, you’ll enjoy Saving Face. The story offers humor and tenderness, and the film provides valuable insight of what life is like within a close, venerated culture of which many of us are mostly unfamiliar.
Movie stills from allmoviephoto.com.