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The Rom-Com You Missed
Happy May, and Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This month has five Mondays, which means five opportunities to expand our movie-watching horizons to the pioneers and champions of AAPI cinema. While most of the films we’ll hit this month haven’t had enormous box office success, it’s not for lack of compelling film-making. This month, our first film is a shoo-in for the romcom hall of fame, which exists in various forms on the internet, but not in any legitimate sense, given the lack of Saving Face.
We open on a young woman, Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), or Wil for short, who is literally saving her face; via an at-home facial mask treatment. She hurries the rest of her morning routine and jumps on the New York subway to work: Wil is a surgeon performing complex procedures at the hospital. We cut to a slightly older woman, Gao (Joan Chen), describing the sad dating prospects of her daughter. Gao’s co-worker convinces Gao to bring her daughter (who we learn is Wil) to a community dance so that she can meet her son. The son has one issue: "He’s only 5’8”. After the plans are set, Gao’s friend gives her one last bit of advice: “Be discrete; nothing kills romance faster than a mother’s approval.”
We cut to the dance. The entirety of our cast is assembled, and various characters in the community are bumping into each other. Wil’s mother, Gao, chastises her for dressing too “boyishly.” Wil eventually dances with the guy with whom she was being set up, but it’s clear she has eyes for someone else: Vivian. (Lynn Chen) Is Vivan returning the perfectly captured, possibly ambiguous looks? Are we seeing what we think we’re seeing? Is Wil?
The sense of Chinese community is captured subtly and efficiently: a community dance gives us the feeling of warmth. Expectations and gossip are imposed upon all participants. We’re introduced to family and friends and how they fit into the big picture. This is done via sharp dialogue, organic acting, and economic writing.
Remarkably, this was the first film and screenplay from director Alice Wu. It is tragically typical that a limited release with little fanfare led to nothing further from Wu until 2020, when she wrote and directed The Half of It for Netflix.
The first private encounter between Wil and Vivian is exciting and tense. I love the era that the quality of the image in Saving Face suggests. Any fans of mid-aughts romcoms will recognize the color palette and grainy texture. It’s a heartening reminder that Queer stories have always existed and are beginning to age gracefully. Further, they have a well-documented history. Watching this first encounter between Wil and Vivan felt natural and ordinary. The radical notion of this film isn’t that a same-sex couple is potentially exploring a relationship; the film’s baseline acceptance of queerness allows it to move into deeper themes of relationships and families.
This leads us directly into a significant plot twist, which I won’t be revealing here. The film expertly lays out plot points like dominos: taking its time getting them into position and pacing revelations in a way that maximizes their impact. In reviewing my notes, there are so many little moments I want to praise but will resist doing not to spoil any of the story. The film lulls us into a sense of security in that Wil’s only obstacle in her courtship of Vivian is her self-doubt and nerves. If this were a color-by-numbers rom-com about a straight romance, it would be content to rest on this conceit as its central conflict: ‘Guy can’t get the girl, and he just needs to go for it’ or something of this ilk. Saving Face takes on the more difficult challenge of earnestly conveying the complexity of coming out as the daughter of a Chinese immigrant.
Reading that last sentence, you may think that the movie veers into dour dramatic territory, as many “awards caliber” films tend to do. I assure you this is not the case. Saving Face captures all of the feelings of young love perfectly and the frustration of balancing that with responsibility. It is a film that is proudly defiant of anyone who wouldn’t accept it with its ‘table-stakes’ thesis of equality.
Halfway into the movie, Wil’s mother goes to a video store. (Remember those?) She’s looking for a distraction and a way to pass the time. She asks the clerk if they have any Chinese films. The selection is abysmal. It’s nice knowing that Saving Face is here helping to fix that.
Written and Directed by Alice Wu
English and Mandarin