Director: Alice Wu (2005)
It is never too late to fall in love for the first time.
Perhaps it is because of the line about calling your mother late at night but I could not help thinking of The Facts of Life theme song after seeing the new romantic dramedy (comedy/drama) Saving Face.
The feature debut of computer programmer-turned-filmmaker Alice Wu, Saving Face tells the story of 28-year old Wilhemina "Wil" Pang (Michelle Krusiec) -- a talented surgeon who "has the touch" and is on the way to "becoming Chief of Surgery by age 40". Like many young Chinese adults with "old country" parents and grandparents, Wil carefully balances the demands of a hectic career with the oftentimes annoying demands of her family. Wil's life is further complicated when her 48-year old widowed mother (Joan Chen) shows up at her doorstep one evening with what overwrought television promos would call "a secret that will change their lives ... forever." If that was not enough to have on her plate, Wil also happens to be a lesbian which, as those of you living in Chinese communities know, goes over about as well as being an American in Mosul.
So what does a film about a conflicted Chinese surgeon have in common with the theme for a cheesy American sitcom that featured a character named Tootie? Well, as the song suggests, you have to take the good and the bad if you want the most out of life; if you want to get the most out of Saving Face, you have to do the same thing. While it does not have the raw emotional power of The Joy Luck Club or the quiet impact of The Wedding Banquet, Saving Face does provide some insight into the mother-daughter relationship, the difficulties of reconciling an individual's sexuality with the mores of family and society as well as the folly of doing what you think is "the right thing" as opposed to doing what you feel is right.
"You take the good .."
The biggest strength of Saving Face is its authenticity. Alice Wu has created a world in the film that will be familiar to any Chinese person who has "old country" family members -- parents, grandparents or other relatives who are first-generation immigrants and were born in "the old country" (be it Chinese mainland, Taiwan or Hong Kong). The community association social, the nagging parent, the paternalistic head of the family, the ignorance about other races, the closed community and the nosey, gossipy bitties can be found in any immigrant Chinese society from New York to New Zealand. Not only does Alice Wu get the big things down, she captures the little things as well: Family bonding over a Chinese television drama and the insistence that at least one meal a day be a Chinese meal will bring a smile of recognition and a wave of fond memories from those who were raised in similar households.
In boxing, there is a term called ring generalship that refers to the skill a boxer users when he cannot overwhelm his opponent with pure punching power. Instead of trying to knockout his opponent, the boxer will use strategy, footwork, agility, movement and pacing to control and wear down his opponent. For a first-time director, Alice Wu shows a tremendous sense of film generalship. In Saving Face, Wu is not telling the epic story of the downfall of China's last emperor or the story of a climactic battle between the Jedi and the Sith; rather, she is telling the tale of a mother and a daughter who have to come to terms with themselves and each other. As a result, Wu cannot rely on spectacular set pieces or dazzling special effects. Instead, she skillfully controls the pacing and tone of the movie by balancing moments of pathos and sentimentality with moments of comedy. The professional look and sound of the film also belie the fact that it is her feature debut. Saving Face is Wu's Clerks but it has the polish and production values of Chasing Amy.
"... you take the bad ..."
Perhaps Wu touches on too many themes and has to weave together too many plot threads in Saving Face but one leaves the film with the sense that she has only scratched the surface of her characters and their conflicts. The film may have made a deeper impact and been more powerful if Wu had fleshed out her characters a little more and delved deeper into their stories. While the relationship between Wil and Ma is well-established, the one between Wil and her lesbian lover Vivian (Lynn Chen) feels a little underdeveloped as they go from awkward flirting to full-fledged couplehood in the matter of a few short scenes.
There are also a few minor inconsistencies in the film that seem to betray the characters and makes one wonder if Wu realizes that she is sacrificing the integrity of her characters for a laugh or a touching moment. Specifically, in the film's penultimate scene, Wil and Vivian engage in a brazen public display of affection that does not jive with the Wil viewers have known in the previous 94 minutes. Yes, the film is a romance and a low-key display of love robs it of a heartwarming ending but one has to question if the heretofore closeted Wil would "come out" in such a bold fashion. A private acknowledgement of love shown by a meeting of the eyes or a tender but clandestine touch may have been more effective because it would have added an element of realism. Instead of thinking "that ... would never happen in real life", viewers would be thinking "awwwwwwww".
The lack of depth and consistency plagues Joan Chen's Ma character the most. Viewers do not get to know Ma too well so it is difficult to get a full grasp of her perspective and her emotions. Maybe she has to be a bit of an enigma because of the secret she keeps but the film would have been more powerful if viewers got a better sense of her loneliness, despair and motivations. Ma also seems to be the biggest victim of inconsistent characterization. She is sophisticated and wise in one scene yet she will come off as a rube in another. For example, she seemingly does not know enough English to speak to a video store clerk yet she can talk to her daughter about Connie Chung. Without enough information, the viewer is left wondering if Ma is naive and sheltered or a wolf in sheep's clothing. A veteran performer, Joan Chen soldiers gamely through her character's inconsistencies but, in the end, even her considerable abilities cannot render a character with whom the audience can fully connect.
"... you take them both and there you have the facts of life, the facts of life."
Saving Face is a thoroughly enjoyable slice-of-life representation of relationships between both a mother and a daughter, and two lovers as well as the joys and burdens of being part of immigrant Chinese society. While most viewers will be unable to relate to being a lesbian in a repressed society, the authentic depiction of family and the immigrant community means that most will be able to connect to Saving Face on some level. In a masterful performance, Michelle Krusiec breathes life into the tomboyish Wil. Apart from the unrealistic "coming out" scene, viewers are mesmerized into thinking that Wil is a real-life person instead of a creation of the imagination. Lynn Chen, in her movie debut, infuses Vivian with an air of grace and quiet dignity that is in marked contrast to the lesbian stereotypes typically offered in feature films.
During the closing moments of Saving Face, one gets the sense that Wu is trying to tell the audience: "Hey, sometimes you have to do what you feel is right and not what you think is right." It is too bad that she does not drive this "fact of life" home with greater force because duty and honor are important but they cannot be sustained if you are unable to be true to yourself. Eventually, things will fall apart because the center cannot hold.
(hkentreview.com December 26, 2005)