Small Change: Alice Wu’s “Saving Face”
By Kristi Mitsuda with a response by Elbert Ventura
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
At one point during Alice Wu‘s ethnic dramedy, “Saving Face,” Ma, played by Joan Chen, skims over titles such as “The Last Emperor” (a knowing nod to the actress’ U.S. breakthrough) and “The Joy Luck Club” while browsing the “China” section of a video store. For a brief, shining moment — since this sequence, with its handheld camera approximating an explicit point-of-view, breaks with the fairly classical visual schema the film has established — you think the director is on the verge of a scathing indictment on the dearth of quality representations of Asians in American cinema or at least a tacit acknowledgement that hers belongs to a short list of mainstream movies that deal specifically with Asian-American characters and issues. But Wu possesses no such self-awareness, and the pan ends abruptly with a facile punchline: meek-looking Ma, captivated by porn.
This setup and payoff are, unfortunately, emblematic of a film that unravels with a sitcom sensibility, sacrificing substance for cheap laughs and taxing audience’s patience over a relatively brief running time of 91 minutes. With a name like “Saving Face” and an opening shot that captures the protagonist in a mask (okay, a mud facial), it’s not difficult to glean where this is going. Widowed Ma, ostracized from her community after she gets pregnant and refuses to name the father, moves in with her daughter, Wil (Michelle Krusiec), just as the latter embarks upon a relationship with a beautiful dancer named Vivian (a suitably poised Lynn Chen). In this parallel coming-of-age tale, the solution to the dilemmas of both mother and daughter relies upon each owning up to “transgressive” desires in the face of cultural expectations. But without any ingenuity to refresh tired tropes, the requisite moments of which such movies are composed — the “Ma, you’re so beautiful” recognition, a last-minute rush to the airport, symbolic public repudiation of traditional prejudices — fall flat.
The particularized plight of second-generation immigrants, as they attempt to navigate the tricky, unmapped territory between old world and new — here encapsulated by the Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens, and the all-encompassing diversity of Manhattan — has begun to spawn a subgenre of its own (of which “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Bend It Like Beckham” are the most obvious examples). But rather than examining intergenerational cross-cultural rifts in a real way, these stories trade on idiosyncratic quirks of ethnicity that, more often than not, serve only to further stereotype whatever racial group at hand. Instead of fleshing out the clichés and illustrating their basis in reality while also bringing to bear a deeper degree of nuance, such culture-clash endeavors take the easy way out by caricaturing while ostensibly humanizing. So it is that the festive Greek family, hysterical Indian parents, and gossipy, matchmaking “Chinese biddies” are all absorbed under the banner of “endearingly zany,” this making-cute as ideologically suspect as other representations.
Nor do the lightly sketched central characters of “Saving Face” provide truly living, breathing alternatives to the cartoonized Others presented. From first kiss to meeting the parents, Wil and Vivian’s romance is so sorely lacking in detailed delineation that it’s impossible to feel with any urgency their predicament or, indeed, to care about them as people. And while the lesbian relationship carries with it the potential to shake up typical Asian-American configurations, regrettably, the filmmaker’s cinematic style matches too closely with her main character’s personality: hesitant, timid, lacking the courage of her convictions. Wu’s desire for a more inclusive world — black and white and Asian, gay and straight, young and old — admirable though it may be, is mired down in the awkwardness so common to virginal directorial attempts. That the admittedly semi-autobiographical debut marks Wu’s personal coming out to her Chinese-American community makes the movie somewhat liberating; but this extratextual knowledge aside, “Saving Face” does little to promote more dimensional depictions of minorities in the strikingly non-melting pot of Hollywood.
A burden of representation falls heavily on the shoulders of those for whom portrayals are rare; each entry carries with it a disproportionately high social significance. Because so few and far between, I long to embrace every addition to the depressingly small canon of Asian-American cinema, to be able to proclaim each one worthy of the price of admission so that the ka-ching of the box-office bells will draw others in for a closer look; only the promise of riches paves the way forward in Hollywood (though perhaps I’m wrongly conflating quality with success), equal opportunity be damned. But a mediocrity like this only hurts future prospects, its substitution of simplistic platitudes for complexity doing the cause a dire disservice.
[ Kristi Mitsuda is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot and maintains the blog artflickchick. ]
By Elbert Ventura
About a third of the way through “Saving Face,” a middle-aged Chinese-American woman wanders into a video store and tells the clerk, “China.” He glumly points over to a shelf, where the camera pans across the predictably meager picks — “The Last Emperor,” “The Joy Luck Club” — before the titles gives way to the bustling porn section. Perhaps too on-the-button, the scene is nonetheless a wry touch that registers the American mainstream’s neglect of the Asian experience, not to mention a bold statement of ambition by director Alice Wu.
Rather than seeking to compensate for years of absence with a grand gesture, Wu sidesteps hyperbole by paring her movie down to the level of lived experience. “Saving Face” is set in the Chinese-American community of New York City, the epicenter of which is Flushing. A capable and earnest docent, Wu guides us through the movie’s cultural and emotional terrain without succumbing to after-school-special spoonfeeding. Simply observed moments, such as the knowing banter of grown-up children being set up by their oblivious parents, or the blithe anti-black racism of older generation Asians, give the movie a bracing intimacy. Meanwhile, the offhanded depiction of a genuinely sexy lesbian love affair between two Asian-Americans seems a defiant statement against the neutering of minorities on American screens.
Would that Wu had stuck to her guns in crafting her narrative. “Saving Face” capitulates to convention in resolving its parallel love stories. The movie veers into Nora Ephron–Garry Marshall territory, replete with a mysterious love letter, a farce-filled wedding, and an airport climax. Human beings become mere movie characters by the end. But if “Saving Face” ultimately disappoints, it is a disappointment salved by promise. From its spot-on feel for the foibles of people to the lambent warmth of its New York (cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian deserves special mention), the movie brims with enough virtues and grace notes to make Wu a director worth watching.
[ Elbert Ventura is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot, as well as to the New Republic Online. ]