Alice Wu’s Saving Face will ring a bell with anyone familiar with Ang Lee’s filmography — it’s got repression, forbidden sexuality, and the battle between tradition and changing mores. Still, this romantic comedy about two women in love — juxtaposed with the dilemma of a 48-year-old unmarried pregnant woman — is lighthearted and winning.
Workaholic surgeon Wil (Michelle Krusiec) finds herself sharing her apartment with her old-school mom (Joan Chen), who’s been disowned by her father after she becomes pregnant. It’s terrible timing, because Wil, a semi-closeted lesbian, is about to meet Vivian (Lynn Chen), a sexy teacher and aspiring ballerina. They hit it off nicely, though Vivian, like Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (Saving Face came out before that film, though Annie Proulx’ original story dates back to 1997), is frustrated with Wil’s hesitance to own her sexual identity. They never go out, never share public displays of affection, and Wil is always off cutting up some patient.
Krusiec and Lynn Chen have a warm, intimate rapport, especially in a genuinely erotic bedroom scene made all the hotter by the presence of laughter. Sex in movies, as directed (usually) by men, is grim, world-shattering, and almost always laughable. (Think of the mythical exertions in 300.) Gays (like John Cameron Mitchell in Shortbus) and women seem uninterested in depicting sex unless there’s some wit to be found, or some new way into the character. Physically, the women match up beautifully; emotionally they’re a bit rockier, but that’s part of the point.
Wu gets some mileage out of the clash of the old Chinese “biddies” and stern paternal figures with the young breed. At social functions, Wil is expected to dance with various men, one of whom rattles through tech stuff and the boringness of his day. Wil and the man literally go through the motions, mostly to parody what’s wanted of them. Wil’s mom belongs to this world, where older Chinese women gossip incessantly and the older men, left among themselves, aren’t much better. It’s all affectionately viewed, though the formula seems to be that the women do all the work and the suffering while the men have the luxury to demand that everyone bend to their will.
Saving Face is amiable and sometimes fresh, straddling the line between challenging the old morality and wanting to retain the familial comforts of ethnicity. At the end of the day, Wil can still go home to a world she knows, even if it exasperates her. Vivian seems to come from a more yuppified family, and we sense that she was pushed into greatness, whereas Wil possibly attained it in spite of her family. Wil speaks Cantonese fluently; Vivian hardly speaks it at all. Vivian is modern; Wil likes to think she’s modern but hasn’t escaped her upbringing. Vivian is art, Wil is science. Both deal with the body, though in one of the best scenes, Vivian tries to teach Wil how to fall without hurting herself and Wil is too clenched and uptight to move. The scene is the movie in microcosm: you have to let yourself fall, and risk pain, in order to get anywhere.
It’s an entertaining debut from a gay woman who used to be a Wil — designing software for Microsoft — and is now trying to be a Vivian. Let’s hope she doesn’t go the way of other lesbian filmmakers, going years between projects and then washing up on the shores of The L Word. Wu has abundant affection for her characters and a sharp eye for how they interact. These days, that’s far from nothing.