A first-generation surgeon tries to find her way out of the closet.
Thursday, June 30, 2005
You’re a talented young resident at a New York hospital, first-generation Chinese, and you happen to be gay. In fact, you’re dating a new and exciting woman, and she wants you to share the relationship with the world—and your family. But can your mother and your grandparents, ensconced in an all-Chinese community in Queens, handle the news?
If you’re Wilhelmina Pang (Michelle Krusiec) and you’re in
the new movie Saving Face, more conflict awaits. Your
mother (Joan Chen), 20 years a widow at the age of 48,
suddenly turns out to be pregnant. She won’t reveal the
identity of the father, and your grandfather kicks her out of
the family residence. That lands her squarely at your
doorstep, apparently for good.
SAVING FACE ( * * ½ )
Directed by Alice Wu
Starring Michelle Krusiec, Joan Chen and Jin Wang
(R, 98 mins.) | At the Osio Cinemas.
To anyone who has attended a handful of film festivals or watched her share of films by first-time directors (as this is), the genre is more than familiar: It’s the intergenerational immigrant drama, here with a gay subspecialty. The parents speak the Old World language and carry the Old World values; they arrange marriages, scold for trespasses, gossip fiercely about (and judge) everybody in their circle, and expect respect and obedience from their offspring. The children, corrupted by American licentiousness and therefore dating whomever they like, stand for the freedom of the new.
One of the lovely nuances to Saving Face is that protagonist Wil has not entirely bought in to her freedom. She shies away from public displays of affection with Vivian (Lynn Chen), her new girlfriend, and can’t bring herself to tell her mother.
Still, with such a familiar setup, Saving Face needs crackling dialogue and sparkling wit to distinguish itself from its myriad peers. It also needs a relationship worth rooting for. Most of the time, unfortunately, it has neither. The dialogue is usually serviceable, with a zinger here and there, but sometimes it isn’t even that. The scenes between Wil and Vivian are cringingly awkward—especially in the beginning, as Vivian appears out of nowhere and starts to sex up her largely sexless quarry.
Of course, the central relationship is not the one between Wil and Vivian but the one between Wil and her mother. The writing is often at its best in the scenes between these two women, when so much of what is happening remains unsaid. They communicate by not communicating: shoveling takeout while going glassy-eyed in front of the television, staring down into their soup at the silent dinner table, lying next to each other in bed without saying a word. Later, when the ice breaks, it breaks for good reason, but it sends the film into a resolution that is too comprehensive, and too fast, to be earned.
Saving Face has a sweet feel to it, a tone of wanting to prove that being open and compassionate, and allowing oneself to make mistakes, is the way of happiness. Part of the reason that Saving Face doesn’t quite succeed is that these messages are so tried and true; these battles have been fought in countless films before. The other part is that in the execution of these themes, Wu uses only the most conventional means.