Saving Face is an American romantic comedy from 2004. It was written and directed by Alice Wu. It was produced by Destination, which was also one of the producers for D.E.B.S. So, that’s probably a good sign. Let’s take a look.
Wilhelmina Pang has a promising career as a surgeon and a fairly close relationship with her mother and grandparents. There’s just one problem, her mum keeps trying to push her together with random dudes and she’s gay. Don’t you hate it when your parents try to set you up with people you have no interest in? My mum used to try that on me all the time with girls from her church. Things become more difficult for Wil when her mother unexpectedly gets pregnant and gets kicked out of her grandparent’s house. After all, her husband’s been dead for years and no one knows who the baby’s father might be. The scandal. Naturally, her mum’s only recourse is to come live with her. And just when Wil is falling for the beautiful dancer Vivian Shing.
The story is basically about different kinds of cultural taboos and finding acceptance for who you are. Both Wil and her mum are experiencing different sets of problems. Wil is trying to hide who she is from the Chinese-American community around her out of fear of becoming an outcast while her mum is learning what it’s like to be an outcast and trying to recover from her own scandal.
One thing I appreciate about the film is that there is a lot of nuance surrounding the community and their reactions. Wil has a male friend who knows she’s gay and actively helps her avoid the guys her mum is trying to hoist on her. Vivian’s parents know that she’s gay and they’re very supportive of her, especially her mother. Wil has more difficulty because her family is more traditional. The only relative we see of hers who I suspect would just accept her is her grandmother.
I also like the sense of humour the film has. Wil’s mum goes to a video rental place to try to find Chinese films and gets directed to pornography in one really funny scene. There’s another where Wil’s neighbour, Jay, comes over to eat and her mum hilariously misunderstands basic knowledge of melanin. Jay is just an amusing character in general. He’s quirky, but in a more realistic, under-stated way as opposed to the more overblown “comedic sidekick” way. The ultimate reveal of who the father of Hwei-lang Gao’s baby actually is is nicely done. It’s one of those reveals you don’t really see coming but it makes perfect sense in hindsight. The romance betwixt Wil & Vivian is really well handled and the obstacles they face have a strong relatability to them. I also appreciate that Wil trying to keep things from her family is not the biggest problem they have. The ending is superb too.
The one criticism I have with the film’s writing is that things might go a little too easily for Wil after her coming out scene. That scene itself is really phenomenal and the mum’s reaction is pretty heart-breaking but, after that, things just kind of wind up going a bit too easy considering.
The characters in this are spectacular. Wil & Vivian are amazing. Their interactions and the tension between them are excellent. Hwei-lang Gao, Wil’s mum, is a great character. I freaking love Jay.
Probably the biggest thing that makes the cast in general phenomenal is that every character has very human faults but they’re also all portrayed in a fairly positive, generous light. Even the scenes where a character is at their worst still let you see their vulnerable, human side. For example, Wai Po comes across as a little cruel when he kicks his daughter out of his home for becoming pregnant without a husband, but it’s also clear that he’s worried about losing the esteem of his community and he sees what she’s done as a disgrace both to her and to him.
Cinematography, Visuals & Effects
The film is superbly directed. The scenes are shot just perfectly in order to gain maximum impact. Especially the early scenes with Wil & Vivian where they’re conveying attraction between the two in spite of them having not really talked or having barely talked. I also appreciate that Wil and Vivian’s love making scenes are tastefully done. Good on Alice Wu.
Acting & Music:
The acting is top-notch. Lynn Chen & Michelle Krusiec are perfect as the leads. Ato Essandoh, Brian Yang, Guang Lan Koh, Jin Wang & Joan Chen are all great. The musical score is really well done too.
Areas of Improvement:
Honestly, it’s tough to come up with three things because the film is so good. So, a lot of these will be very minor.
- Have more build up for Hwei-lang Gao’s change of heart. Like I said, she changes her mind and comes around too easily.
- Maybe have some more Jay scenes. Since he is great.
- Maybe a little more courtship between Wil & Vivian. Since their relationship does move a bit fast.
Saving Face may be the best romantic comedy film I’ve ever seen. Not just because of the relationship, but because of how it engages with its culture, incorporates the writer/director’s own experiences and provides very strong characters. Ultimately, my one real complaint with it isn’t even that major. So, I’ll give it a 10/10.