Written and directed by Alice Wu and released in 2005, the film Saving Face tells the story of an Asian-American woman, Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), and her mother, played by Joan Chen, who are living in Manhattan and must confront their personal issues. Her mother doesn’t know that she’s a lesbian – or, rather, refuses to acknowledge it – and a new relationship with the sultry Vivian (Lynn Chen) forces the discussion.
This is a film that I just happened upon last year and it quickly became an unassuming favorite. It’s one of the best romantic comedies in recent years because, like the genre of old, it allows for the meet-cute, will-they-won’t-they sexual tension to play out, but it’s also the only plot point of the movie. There’s more going on than simply the relationship between Wilhelmina and Vivian – there’s the integral relationship between mother and daughter, and there’s Ma’s storyline with her own love interest and her refusal to adapt completely to American culture. There are a whole list of gems and nuances in this film, and the romance is simply an added bonus. Good romantic comedies are the ones where each character is as interesting alone as they are together.
I love the contrast of the characters in this film. There’s Ma and her quiet vanity and love of movies and television – she’s aloof but loves her daughter immensely. Wilhelmina is a surgeon, dedicated, a little uptight and a little awkward in her own skin. Then there’s Vivian, a lighter character who’s comfortable with who she is, confident and simply wants an open and loving relationship with Wilhelmina.
Alice Wu does a marvelous job with shooting the two’s scenes. A scene where the two are talking is shot with a fence in between them – they grasp at each other’s fingers, playfully smiling and flirting, but there is something physically and metaphorically separating them: Wilhelmina’s refusal to tell her mom about the two of them. There’s a scene at the end where the two dance together, small gestures showcasing their want and love. Wu also does a beautiful job of filming intimate scenes in a manner in which neither girl is overtly sexualized. The nudity is casual, it isn’t there to titillate or shock – it simply is. What Wu does to capitalize on in these scenes is just how into each other the two girls are. They are smitten and we can see that mutual affection from both of them.
It’s hard to nail a realistic mother-daughter relationship, but Wu succeeds by refusing to fall unnecessarily into sentiment. Sometimes you can have an imperfect relationship with a family member without it being volatile or angst-ridden. Sometimes you disagree, sometimes you don’t share the same beliefs or ideas, but there’s typically room for growth, which is what we see on both Ma and Wilhelmina’s end. Neither of them are perfect but they’re willing to try.
Out of curiosity, I looked to see if Wu had directed any other films, ready to watch them in a heartbeat, and was saddened to see none. She is the type of voice we need in contemporary entertainment. She brought a fresh perspective to an old genre and made it not only immensely watchable, but also relatable to the youth of today. It allows for a not-often seen perspective to take center stage as well as delivering a heartwarming, charming, and though-provoking story.