“Saving Face”

(cross-posted at the paper tiger)…

No, I’m not referring to the Bush Administration’s fall-back strategy for coping with the indictment of Scooter Libby and all the suddenly pointing fingers at the lies and deceptions underlying the hollow rationale for the invasion of Iraq. Lots of other blogs out there doing a brilliant job of that (and might I recommend Booman Tribune and firedoglake as places to go for your latest installments of “Scooter Goes to Jail”? Part Two: “Turdblossom’s Fitzmas Present”).

I’m referring to last year’s indy film by first-time director Alice Wu. Now, I work in the film industry and am well-aware of the dynamics that control what films get made and why – one of the reasons that I’d rather read and write novels, to be honest. But occasionally, exceptions come along, and in the case of this one, I can only shake my head in admiration and wonderment.

“Saving Face” is, first, a film about Chinese Americans. With no white people. Well, that’s a big no-no. Second, it’s a film about Chinese American lesbians, which, even given the popularity of girl on girl sex in certain lad-ish circles is still a bit of a commercial stretch. Third, half the film is in Mandarin! Lovely, proper Mandarin, in the case of Joan Chen, always a boon to us aspiring Chinese students. But you gotta figure that market is also somewhat limited. And did I mention the part where this was the director’s first script and first film? That Wu’s previous job was as a software geek at Microsoft? That she quit her job and gave herself five years to get her film made? And along the way, encountered attitudes like these?

”They had me meet with a lot of people in Hollywood, mostly Asian-American studio executives, which I hadn’t honestly known existed,” Ms. Wu said. She also hadn’t anticipated just how often she would be asked to consider changes that struck at the very heart of the script everyone seemed to like so much: Couldn’t Ms. Wu make her characters white, so maybe the young doctor could be played by, say, Reese Witherspoon, and Ellen Burstyn could be cast as her mother? How about making the love affair heterosexual? Did she have to direct as well as write it? It was advice Ms. Wu declined to take.

(from an unlinkable May 29, 2005 NYT article)

The only part of this I have any sympathy for is the caution about giving a complete novice director the helm. God knows there have been far too many inexperienced directors who’ve cost studios tons of money because they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. That applies to some pretty well-known directors as well (*cough* let’s just say he’s not “money” *cough*).

Anyway, “Saving Face” is a charming dramatic comedy that’s been compared to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Bend It Like Beckham.” I haven’t seen the latter film but can say that it’s a much better movie than the first, even with what I feel is one dramatic misstep (which since I don’t want to drop a spoiler, I’ll decline to go into here). The film is about a young doctor in NYC who does not know how tell her very traditional family that she’s gay (and in love with a ballerina, no less). Add to that her widowed mother’s mysterious pregnancy (she declines to identify the father). Kicked out of her Flushing-based parents’ house, Mom moves in with daughter, redecorates the apartment in proper Chinese fashion and holes up watching bad Chinese soap operas (are there any other kind?). Will mother and daughter remain enslaved to tradition and misery? Or will they risk opening themselves up to real love?

Now available on DVD. I urge you all to rent and watch, if for no other reason than to support a tenacious filmmaker who stayed true to her vision and somehow got it done, and in fine style. But I think you’ll enjoy the film too.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 11 Comments

It’s not in Taiwan yet, though I’m sure I’ll see the pirated DVD for sale on the streets of Shanghai next week. It sounds good.

October 30, 2005 @ 6:56 am | Comment

well, the nice thing about films like these is that they don’t have to make a ton of money to be a financial success because they don’t cost that much to begin with. And now and again they pay off big – Full Monty and Napoleon Dynamite being recent examples. Those movies cost nothing to make and raked in the bucks.

October 31, 2005 @ 12:30 am | Comment

Can’t imagine that will sell much in the U.S. Not exactly hitting a target market, but then again anything is better than this past summer’s cinematic debacles.

October 31, 2005 @ 1:00 am | Comment

i thought the movie sucked, the dialogue was especially bad, and it was rife with cliches about Chinese people. i’ve talked to others that have watched it, and some mentioned that they didn’t quite believe the love story part of it either, you know, the two leads being in love, having on screen chemistry, good lines, etc. i hate to be so negative since it is rare that such a movie could even be made, but just in terms of filmmaking, this movie was pretty lousy.

October 31, 2005 @ 1:46 am | Comment

Awww…I thought it was cute! Much better than my Big fat greek whaddyacallit anyway…

October 31, 2005 @ 10:25 am | Comment

You got to have a brain to enjoy this movie – no offend. Don’t everyone agreed with me that this is the most beautiful sex scene ever done by Asian Actors ? Most of the time Asian directors made the movie either too Eastern or half East, half West. I think the reason this movie got high rate among Asian community because it is very honest, very personal. Don’t mislead by the negative comments, you will judge the movie by your normal heart.

November 2, 2005 @ 6:17 am | Comment

I think the show is fantastic and it is now showing in Singapore with pretty decent box office record here as well.

I walked in the cinema, not expecting anything much than the usual romantic comedy kind of shows but came out touched and mesmerised.

The reason why i love the show was that it really touched me with its sincerity and how it protrayed 2 people being in love but met up with many obstacles along the way. And I love it more when I learned about the difficulties Alice Wu had to go through to actually get the film made. I was really inspired by her strong will and determination.

Btw, i’m getting the DVD soon, can’t wait for it to arrive..

November 4, 2005 @ 5:58 am | Comment

Is the DVD already in Singapore?

November 16, 2005 @ 7:32 pm | Comment

I thought it was a great movie, well directed and acted.

November 20, 2005 @ 5:03 am | Comment

Not perfect, but so charming, it overcomes its faults. Incredibly funny as well — and, sure there are comedic moments based on stereotypes, but those moments ring (uncomfortably) true AND are so lovingly presented, I cannot possibly be offended. The entire cast was quite good, and Lynn Chen in particular should get more credit for her work.

January 23, 2006 @ 4:22 pm | Comment

If you are a romantic, you would easily appreciate this movie. Moreso, if you are an Asian living in North America. I love the part when Vivan was teaching Wil the ballet dancing of “falling without hurtiing yourself.” It’s symbolic of one falling in love – just let go. Buy the DVD folks! It’s well worth your money.

February 12, 2006 @ 5:29 am | Comment

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