Pride Month Review: Saving Face (2004)
Saving Face is about young doctor, Wilhelmina Pang, Wil for short, who is comfortable in her living arrangements when two things happen to rock her world at the foundations. The first is that she has a crush on the beautiful Vivian, the second that her 48 year old, unmarried mother is pregnant and refuses to tell anyone who the baby's father is. Their small Chinese-American community is abuzz with all of the hot gossip, but Wil is desperate to just go back under the radar so she and Vivian can find out if what is between them is for real. The film stars Michelle Krusiec, Joan Chen, Lynn Chen, Jin Wang, Guang Lan Koh, Jessica Hecht, Ato Essandoh, David Shih, Brian Yang, Nathanel Geng, Mao Zhao, Louyong Wong, Clare Sum, Qian Luo, Richard Chang, and Hoon Lee. The film is written and directed by Alice Wu. The film is streaming via IMDb TV with ads and it's also available to rent or buy on all digital and physical media platforms.
There's honestly nothing I love in a movie more than a pregnant pause, an intense uncomfortable silence, or the longing between two characters. Saving Face has it of course with our main couple, but there's also something terrific about the longing inherent in Wil's mother Hwei-Lan's silence about her own secret. She imposes on her daughter and binges Chinese soap operas because she doesn't want to think about her own loneliness and doubts. It's the same reason she befriends Jay, Wil's affable neighbor, despite a rocky start due to her racial prejudices, she needs an outsider to keep her from thinking about the implosion of the life she's cultivated for herself inside such an insular community.
I usually don't like a film that splits its narrative between two protagonists like Saving Face does, but there is something far more cohesive about this interweaving narrative than I'm used to seeing. I especially love the contrast between Wil's first date with Vivian and Hwei-Lan's adventure at the video store. On Wil and Vivian's side get the awkward uncomfortableness when someone complacent in their secrets meets with someone who seems so sure about herself and what she wants. Then we cut to Hwei-Lan's hopefulness that there will be something she wants to watch at her new neighborhood video store. As Wil and Vivian get closer, Hwei-Lan gets curiouser as she pops in a porn tape to see what it's all about. This joy of first discovery for both parties is funny and sexy and an intriguing pairing much like Wil and Vivian themselves.
We've seen in romantic comedies, the straight-laced, practical person, paired with the free wheeling artist before, but it feels so fresh and more than comfortable than it has in a long time. Not only are Wil and Vivian experiencing the universal problems that all romantic couples face, they're doing it as Wil still struggles with outward expressions of her sexuality.
Alice Wu and cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian capture this perfectly in quick shots of the courtship. There are several beautifully yearning scenes between our couple. One terrific example is their reintroduction. An alchemy of acting and camera work that says more than any words could and makes this moment gloriously perfect. As Wil looks around her for Vivian, she catches her. What she thinks is a sneaky move is caught by Vivian who stretches her mouth into a sly smirk, which makes Wil turn away, but glance again over her shoulder.
The scene of the two women in the hospital is also full of this achingly beautiful yearning. I loved as Wil attempts to pick out a treat for herself, Vivian leans over, knowing exactly what she's doing, flirting, giving glances and there's the very real moment as she looks away and Wil attempts to sneak a sniff of Vivian's perfect hair. It made my heart ache so much in the best way. Though, the scene is funny and charming as well.
Alice Wu has built such a delicate tightrope of tension and emotion in Saving Face. Her writing sings in the dialogue she produces, but also in those moments of silence. Her direction is precise and her eye is impeccable when it comes to knowing exactly how much we need to see. Wu's assured camera is complimented as well by the assured editing of Susan Graef and Sabine Hoffman.
Though, I love and cherish the beautiful queer love story, my heart already belonged and will forever belong to the majesty that is Joan Chen. Chen is an actress who draws eyes with her beauty, but keeps our eyes and attentions with her biting wit, her baleful stares and her perfect physical comedy. She brought Hwei-Lan to life and made her into an impudent, sophomoric, stoic, fearful, graceful, wanting woman. Chen created a complex and hard to love, but hard to ignore woman with her performance. It's beautiful and makes me yearn for more of her in roles like this.
Saving Face has a depth and deftness that few stories like it achieve. It's riotously funny, heart-breaking, beautiful and gives us exactly the type of fairy tale we crave. I can't recommend it highly enough. If you haven't already seen Alice Wu's follow up, (yes, there was a 16 year gap between these two!) 2020's The Half of It, I highly recommend that as well. If you want another tale of immigrant experience, family ties, and queerness, might I recommend the far more serious, but no less beautiful, God's Own Country (2017).