This week at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, audiences were witness to a small but critical step forward in American cinema: the U.S. premiere of Saving Face, the first American theatrical release featuring an Asian American lesbian couple. It’s also a funny and touching romantic comedy dealing with universal themes that should provide broad appeal when it opens in theaters in May.
Openly lesbian director Alice Wu‘s first feature film, Saving Face is about the relationship between 28-year-old closeted lesbian surgeon Wilhelmina “Wil” Pang (Michelle Krusiec) and her mother Ma (Joan Chen), a 48-year-old widow who only speaks Mandarin and socializes solely with other members of the Chinese American community in Flushing, New York.
The movie explores the relationship between mother and daughter when Ma unexpectedly turns up on Wil’s Manhattan doorstep pregnant, just as Wil is falling in love with a ballerina, Vivian (Lynn Chen). Vivian becomes frustrated with Wil’s unwillingness to be open about their relationship (asking “is this just an illicit affair?”), while Ma pressures Wil to find a boyfriend, even as she copes with her own ostracization from her community. Changing circumstances finally force Ma and Wil to choose between following their hearts and conforming to social pressure, with comic and poignant results.
The film’s overarching theme is the cost and benefit of personal freedom, and Wu effectively (and fairly subtly) intertwines Wil and Ma’s storylines in order to highlight their similarities. Wu also succeeds in using Wil’s relationship with Vivian as an illustration of Wil’s larger struggle, while at the same time making the relationship raw and real enough that it avoids being reduced to only a metaphor.
Wil and Vivian’s relationship is also refreshingly stereotype-free, and beautifully and realistically portrayed by Krusiec and Chen, who have good chemistry. Although lesbian viewers are likely to wish there was a little more time devoted to its development, this is easily one of the better lesbian relationships we’ve seen on the big screen in years.
Saving Face has its flaws, most notably a slightly over-the-top, unrealistically happy ending that I won’t spoil by elaborating on. I’m all for happy endings—especially in lesbian films, where they are often few and far between—but there were just a few scenes at the end of Saving Face that strained credibility to the point that you were pulled out of the movie, thinking “that would never happen.”
The path the story takes overall is also not exactly unpredictable, either; you generally know where this is headed from the beginning, since it is, after all, a romantic comedy at heart. But the New York Chinese American setting is different enough, with just enough little surprises sprinkled along the way–Ma furtively renting a porn video, Wil helping her mother getting ready for a date, Vivian teaching Wil how to fall like a dancer–that the film still feels fresh.
And in a nice change from most romantic lesbian-themed movies, the solid directing, cinematography, production quality and writing all combine to give the film the kind of smooth polish usually only found in big budget movies where the lesbians are murderers or someone’s best friend–an even more remarkable feat given that this is Wu’s first feature film. All three of the lead characters may seem somewhat stereotypical at first glance, but they are quickly revealed to be interesting, three-dimensional women who defy easy categorization.
Saving Face also boasts an outstanding cast with an array of experience—from the veteran Joan Chen (The Last Emperor), to the up-and-coming Michelle Krusiec (Pumpkin), to newcomer Lynn Chen (All My Children), who told audiences at Sundance that this was the first film script she’d ever been sent.
Last year at Sundance, I saw D.E.B.S. and walked away thinking that the film would create legions of new (lesbian) fans for Jordana Brewster. This year, I left the festival with the strong feeling that besides signaling the entrance of a talented new director, Saving Face is someday going to be known as the film that launched Lynn Chen’s career.
Although Joan Chen and Michelle Krusiec deliver excellent performances—Chen is brilliant and funny as a woman who finally dares to stand on her own after years of submission, and Krusiec nails the awkward, tomboy-ish Wil, who will probably remind you of at least one lesbian you know—Lynn Chen brings a quiet intensity and radiance to Vivian that makes her one of the most memorable characters in the film, despite the fact that she has the least screen time of the three. If her future roles and performances are this good, Chen has the potential to become a big star.
Saving Face is one of the few feature films about Asian Americans to get a theatrical release since The Joy Luck Club made a big splash in 1993, and the first U.S. theatrical release featuring an Asian American lesbian couple. There have been Asian American lesbian characters in theatrical releases before, but only three in recent years: Wild Side (1995), High Art (1998), and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), and in all three, the Asian American lesbian characters were involved with white women.
Saving Face is an engaging and entertaining film, but more importantly, it offers Asian American lesbians a chance to finally see something of themselves represented on the big screen. It gives lesbian and bisexual women of all races and ethnicities a good lesbian romantic comedy of the kind we haven’t seen on the big screen in years.
It’s about time on both fronts.