You’re a talented young resident at a New York hospital, first-generation Chinese, and you happen to be gay. In fact, you’re dating a new and exciting woman, a dancer with the city ballet, and she wants you to share the relationship with the world — and your family. But can your mother and your grandparents, ensconced in an all-Chinese community in Queens — where mothers conspire to couple their children into traditional heterosexual marriages — handle the news?
For a 28-year-old surgeon, whose hours at the hospital and ongoing family obligations would seem to preclude romantic entanglement altogether, that might be problem enough. But if you’re Wilhelmina Pang (Michelle Krusiec) and you’re in the new movie Saving Face, more conflict awaits. Your mother (Joan Chen, doing high drama), twenty years a widow at the age of 48, suddenly turns out to be pregnant. She won’t reveal the identity of the father, and your grandfather kicks her out of the family residence. That lands her squarely at your doorstep, apparently for good.
To anyone who has attended a handful of film festivals or watched her share of films by first-time directors (as this is), the genre is more than familiar: It’s the intergenerational immigrant drama, here with a gay subspecialty, as in Ang Lee’s early film The Wedding Banquet. The parents speak the Old World language and carry the Old World values; they arrange marriages, scold for trespasses, gossip fiercely about (and judge) everybody in their circle, and expect respect and obedience from their offspring. The children, corrupted by American licentiousness and therefore dating whomever they like, stand for the freedom of the new — except when they don’t.
One of the lovely nuances to Saving Face is that protagonist Wil has not entirely bought in to her freedom. She shies away from public displays of affection with Vivian (Lynn Chen), her new girlfriend, and can’t bring herself to tell her mother, whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy doesn’t seem to have had any effect on her values. In addition, Wil’s loving grandmother is a bit of a maverick, and while the kooky, supportive grandmother (or grandfather, or aunt) is a bit of a stock character, it’s nice that the entire older generation isn’t also old-guard.
Still, with such a familiar setup, Saving Face needs crackling dialogue and sparkling wit to distinguish itself from its myriad peers. It also needs a relationship worth rooting for. Most of the time, unfortunately, it has neither. The dialogue is usually serviceable, with a zinger here and there, but sometimes it isn’t even that. The scenes between Wil and Vivian are cringingly awkward — especially in the beginning, as Vivian appears out of nowhere and starts to sex up her largely sexless quarry. Krusiec is a lovely actress, adept at conveying her character’s emotional withholding, but the script is so busy portraying her as stifled that it forgets to give her any zest. Instead, Vivian has to carry it all, and she comes off as overripe. In addition, Saving Face takes so little time to develop the women’s relationship — plotwise, they’ve barely come together when conflict arises — that it never jells as believable and real. Or, you know, hot.
Of course, the central relationship is not the one between Wil and Vivian but the one between Wil and her mother. The writing (or lack thereof) is often at its best in the scenes between these two women, when so much of what is happening remains unsaid. They communicate by not communicating: shoveling takeout while going glassy-eyed in front of the television, staring down into their soup at the silent dinner table, lying next to each other in bed without saying a word. When Wil does hazard a question, her mother is evasive, always (yes) saving face. Unfortunately, and apparently unbeknownst to her, Wil’s mother protects her honor at the cost of intimacy with her daughter. Later, when the ice breaks, it breaks for good reason, but it sends the film into a resolution that is too comprehensive, and too fast, to be earned.
Saving Face has a sweet feel to it, a tone of wanting to prove that being open and compassionate, and allowing oneself to make mistakes, is the way of happiness. (Indeed, in the director’s notes, Alice Wu explains that she made the film because she “wanted [her] mother to know that it was never too late to fall in love for the first time and that it is not by doing things right, but by sometimes getting them wrong, that we launch the journey that allows us to come into our own.”) Who can argue with that? But that’s exactly the problem. Part of the reason that Saving Face doesn’t quite succeed is that these messages are so tried and true; these battles have been fought in countless films before. The other part is that in the execution of these themes, Wu uses only the most conventional means.