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Saving Face

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Written and Directed by Alice Wu

Saving Face is a story set in a tight-knit Chinese community in the neighborhoods of New York City about a family dealing with the issues of love and family responsibility. Wil (Michelle Krusiec) is an attractive, twenty-something doctor who has to frequent social functions at the request of her widowed mother, Ma (Joan Chen), in the hopes of finding a good Chinese husband. The plan backfires because Wil, a closeted lesbian, meets a lovely ballet dancer named Vivian (Lynn Chen) there. They began a secret affair, in part because Vivian is the daughter of Wil’s boss. Life becomes even more hectic for Wil when she comes home one night to find Ma on the steps of her apartment building because Ma’s father, who is shamed by the fact that Ma is pregnant and won’t say by whom, has kicked her out. Both women learn from each other as they are forced to make decisions about whether they should follow their hearts or the rules of their society.

I didn’t enjoy Saving Face, but it is not a bad movie; the problem is that the stories are too familiar and have been better presented in other works, such as Lee’s The Wedding Banquet. It was no surprise when I learned that Wu wrote the screenplay in a week because while there were a number of interesting conflicts, the situations aren’t mined for all they could offer and the resolutions are resolved too smoothly. Also, the emotions of all the characters are very restrained, which might be because we are dealing with Chinese culture, but that keeps the viewer distant and disengaged. I had no emotional investment in the characters, so the outcomes didn’t matter.

There was great potential with the setting and characters to offer insight into Chinese-American society and the lesbians who find themselves a part of it, but the movie failed to offer anything new on either front. There was nothing uniquely Chinese about the characters, so they could have been people of any nationality. The relationship between Wil and Vivian wasn’t explored fully. If they had been a heterosexual couple of different races, the film would have been the same. The movie has only one sex scene, yet it should still help foreign sales when the producers mention that the movie has topless Asian lesbians kissing, but there is no more exploration of their sexuality, so if that is what the viewer is looking for, they are going to be just as disappointed as the people who searched the Internet for “topless Asian lesbians kissing” and find only my review.

I’m sure some people will like this movie. It’s a decent romantic comedy and it did have some good moments, especially the scene when Wil reveals the man involved with her mother, but not enough to keep my interest. I can’t recommend that you seek it out because the story unfolds like a pilot from a light dramatic television series on Lifetime or Oxygen that I wouldn’t watch.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://WWW.NYTIMES.COM dAVID cHEN

    ‘SAVING FACE’ BY WOMEN BORN OF TAIWAN PARENTS DEBUTS IN U.S.

    Central News Agency, CNA, Taiwan governtment news agency

    A trio of women born of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States and
    the ever-luminous Joan Chen have shined in the romantic comedy “Saving
    Face, ” which premiered in Los Angles and Orange County in California
    last Friday.

    The Los Angeles Times said the debut film by Alice Wu, also the
    screenwriter, seems like something that she has ‘been doing for years,
    ” and that the film “avoids the pitfalls of many of the coming-out,
    coming-of-age and coming-to-terms-with-your-family movies popular with
    first-timers. The film is sweet with being saccharine, wry without
    being cynical and unabashedly romantic without being cloying or
    disingenuous.”

    Wu was a computer programmer in *[SEATTLE – Microsoft] Silicon
    Valley. Out of her passion for the movies, she decided she would turn
    the stories [NO THIS IS HER OWN ORIGINAL STORY] told to her by her
    mother, a graduate of National Taiwan University, into a movie. HER
    PARENTS ARE FROM SHANGHAI, OR AT LEAST HER FATHER IS. HER BIO SAYS HER
    PARENTS CAME TO USA FROM CULTURAL REVOLTUION CHINA AS SHANGHAI
    ACADEMICS.

    Wu deftly weaves the delightful multi-generation relations story
    which features Michelle Krusiec, a successful surgeon in New York
    City, while Joan Chen plays her 48-year-old widowed and
    Mandarin-speaking mother, who is recently banished from her home for
    being pregnant and refusing to disclose the name of the child’s
    father. There is also Lynne Chen, a dancer and Krusiec’s
    girlfriend.

    Krusiec wrote and performed “Made in Taiwan, ” a darkly comedic
    survival story and coming-of-age tale of a young soul-searching Asian
    American daughter with an old-world mother hell-bent on teaching her
    the ways of the world while she was a theater student at Virginia
    Tech. Since graduating, Krusiec has hosted “Travelers” for the
    Discovery Channel, performed as a series regular on NBC’s “One World,”
    and PLAYED many roles on shows such as “Providence” and “E.R.”

    Lynne Chen has performed on the Broadway stage since she was 10.
    “Saving face” has won official selection in the Sundance Film Festival
    and Toronto Film Festival.

    (By L. S. Chu and Lilian Wu)

  • DAVID CHEN

    In ime director Alice Wu’s new Asian American romantic comedy ”Saving Face”, which opened in limited release this weekend, Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen play Wil and Vivian, a doctor and a dancer who fall in love against the backdrop of their insular Chinese American community in New York. I talked to Lynn and Michelle recently about the movie, their first kiss, and how they feel about playing the first Asian American lesbian couple in an American theatrical release.

    AfterEllen.com: Michelle, how did you get cast as Wil?
    Michelle Krusiec: That process took a while. It was May, 2003 when I first met [producer] Teddy Zee, who had seen the show I made in Taiwan. It wasn’t until August that I was actually cast. Between May, June, and July I was preparing for the role as if I had been cast, hoping that all the work would eventually pay off, but I didn’t get a firm confirmation until late in the process.

    AE: What preparation were you doing, learning Mandarin?
    MK: That was a big thing because when I first initially met with Alice, I had probably one of the best auditions I have ever had, because I totally connected with her. But I wasn’t fluent in Mandarin. I was at an elementary level at the time and my pronunciation was pretty bad. It was very possible that people could hear it and it might draw you out of the performance, and that’s what she was concerned with. So I tried to get myself as proficient as possible. Essentially I think I went from elementary grade to high school grad in three months.

    AE: (to Lynn) How did you get the part of Vivian?
    Lynn Chen: My manager at the time only represented Asian actresses, so he was being called for every single part. He sent in all the stuff, I went in and auditioned, and immediately they said “You should read the script.” So I did and was called back two weeks later, called back, again and again. It was similar to Michelle, I knew I was their first choice and they were telling me things like, “You might want to look like a ballet dancer, you don’t have the part, but you might want to do these things.” I was like “okay” and did those things, but it was a long casting process for me. I started in May or June and was not officially cast until a few weeks before production started like in September.

    AE: What did you two think when you first met each other?
    MK: Truthfully, I thought Lynn was really sweet, and I wanted someone to be more like, grrr! To dominate me. I think that is a more stereotypical response: one woman is dominant and the other one is passive. That was sort of what I fell into, I wanted a women who is strong and hard, who was going to take me, because I was a passive and introverted character. Lynn’s performance took it in a different great direction. Alice went with a totally different choice. Alice’s casting choices sort of show how unique she is.
    LC: When I first read the script and when I was auditioning and stuff, I had a different picture of Vivian in my mind. I pictured someone who was strong, who was comfortable in her own skin, but less classy then she ended up being. I pictured someone who was sort of raw and just said what ever the hell she wanted to say and didn’t apologize for it. When I was auditioning and saw the wardrobe, I was like, “Oh, okay, she is a little classier than me” with my stained tank top, and my bra hanging out.

    AE: What was your initial impression of Michelle?
    LC: When I was in the final stage, I knew what was going on and found out they had cast Michelle as the lead already, and I was like, “Okay, great. I have to find out everything about this girl because I have to know exactly who I am going to be working with.” I had HBO on Demand, I watched all the movies she had been in and fast forwarded to Michelle’s part and paused and watched. I rented Pumpkin and all these movies. I was like, “Wait a minute, she has done so many different types of roles. I can’t put my finger on who I think she is!”
    MK: (laughs)
    LC: When I first walked in the room to audition with Michelle, I had known she was a good actress, but I had already tested with someone else before that–like a month before, someone else they were considering for your role.
    MK: (surprised) You did?
    LC: Yeah.
    MK: (laughing) I don’t want to hear this.
    LC: I tested with her, and I was like “this isn’t working.” I was worried about the project because I didn’t think she was right for the role at all. I thought if they were really considering this girl strongly for it, then I was in trouble, because A, I don’t think she is right for it, and B, I am not feeling it.

    AE: The chemistry wasn’t there.
    LC: Right. When I went for my final audition with Michelle and I did it with her, I was like, “I can totally see this happening and we’re on the same page.”

  • DAVID CHEN

    money qUOTE HERE:

    THIS MOVIE IS MORE THAN JUST TWO TOPLESS NUDE LESBIASIANS KISSING. COME ON. IT’S REAL, MAN.

    Did either of you watch the movie with your parents, and was that weird?

    LC: I haven’t seen it much with my parents at all yet. They were going
    to come to Sundance but it got too complicated. They’ll see it later
    on. I think the only thing that’s going to be weird is the love scene,
    just because my mother never wanted me to do that. I’ve been acting
    since I was really young, and she was always like”don’t ever pose
    nude!” That was ingrained in my head.

    MK: My mother said, “If you are going to pose nude, get a lot of
    money!” (laughs)

    LC: I was so scared to tell my mom that I had done a nude scene, and
    when I finally told her she was like, “Oh my God, Oh my God. Okay.”
    Then, like a week later, I was talking to someone else and I had
    mentioned I did a nude scene, and my mom acted like she didn’t know
    and went, “Oh my god, oh my god.” I said, “Mom, you knew this.” She
    like, “I know, I know.” I feel like when we actually see, she will
    freak out initially.

    AE: Did it make a difference that it was with a women or was it just the nudity?

    LC: It’s just the nudity. My parents don’t care about the lesbian
    part. Actually, when they describe the movie to people, my Mom is so
    proud, she says, “This is my daughter, she is going to be in a movie.
    She’s a lesbian.”

    MK: The nudity part I was actually okay with, I trusted Alice. It’s
    funny [turns to Lynn], the most vulnerable moment I find in the movie
    was when you touched my lip. Every time you do that, I feel so raw and
    very opened, because it’s not so much the nudity and it’s not being
    with a women. I felt that that moment really captured intimacy.

    Whenever I see that, I always kind of giggle and I am like “Oh, there
    it is, right there.” Even more so then just Lynn and I being naked
    kissing.

  • http://www.savingfacemovie.com AM

    Wow, this critic is ignorant. Do you even speak Chinese? If you did, you would know this was the first movie ever that actually reflected what Chinese and Chinese-American communities are like, instead of making actors who are supposed to be immigrants speak English with Chinese accents or hiring actors to speak Chinese with heavy American accents. This is revolutionary, in terms of accurately reflecting what life is like, rather than what Hollywood wants it to be to appeal to more audiences. Bravo to the director. Other than that, this film is fun, well-acted, and well-directed. It’s not some artsy-fartsy indie film, it’s a good old fashioned romantic comedy so go in expecting that instead and you’ll see it’s solid.

  • HW Saxton

    AM, A movie you would likely enjoy is a
    film called “Chan Is Missing”.It was the
    first film by the director Wayne Wang.
    It was done back in 1981 or 1982. It is
    unfortunately not on DVD yet.But it can
    be found in VHS format on line.

    It is a very realistic low budget movie
    that was filmed in and around Chinatown
    in San Fransisco. It’s portrayal of the
    day to day life of Chinese-Americans is
    one of the most realistic you’ll likely
    ever see. At points in the movie if the
    actor does not speak English he speaks
    either Cantonese or Mandarin w/o any use
    of sub-titles. It shows how diverse the
    Asian community is and how the different
    generations(new immigrants,young US born
    Asian youth, people who are torn between
    the old ways of China and the new ways
    of the USA,etc.)all interact with each
    other in a realistic way. Chinatown is
    shown as a neighborhood and NOT as some
    dark,mysterious place filled with Triad
    gangsters running white slave businesses
    and the heroin trade.All Asian people I
    know have said it’s a very realistic and
    balanced film. Some didn’t like the film
    itself as a movie per se, but all agreed
    it is,again, a very honest and real take
    on Asian (Chinese in particular)life in
    America today. Plus it’s a great low-key
    mystery,very funny and it was shot in
    black and white which gives it a suureal
    edge and timeless quality.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    AM,

    Before you whip out the insults, check your facts because your ignorance is on full display. This is not “the first movie ever that actually reflected what Chinese and Chinese-American communities are like.” Aside from some films by Wayne Wang including the aforementioned “Chan is Missing,” which, by the way, I have seen and you obviously haven’t, there is Ang Lee’s first two films and the documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”

    You also fail to point out what scenes reflect “what Chinese and Chinese-American communities are like.” I saw scenes that would be universal to all immigrant groups, but nothing that was unique to the Chinese-American experience.

    David,

    you can post as many PR items as you like, but you don’t address my review of the film. I didn’t say that the movie was just two lesbians kissing. I said “there is no more exploration of their sexuality” other than that scene. Your post, which focuses on the scene, reiterates my point.