One of the opening scenes in Alice Wu’s whimsical 2005 romantic comedy Saving Face is set at Planet China, a social dance for the Chinese community of Flushing, New York. Wil (Michelle Krusiec) begrudgingly attends, forced to dance with the latest in a string of eligible bachelors scouted by her mother Ma (Joan Chen), who is either ignorant or in denial about the fact that her daughter is a lesbian. It is a premise that feels almost too familiar: the stern immigrant parent versus the child who just wants to be their true self. But within minutes, Wu subverts this dynamic completely: Ma appears on Wil’s doorstep, dishevelled and agitated, weighed down by half a dozen haphazardly packed bags. We quickly learn that Ma, a 48-year-old widow, is pregnant, and has subsequently been cast out of her conservative father’s household.
This surprising turn is characteristic of Saving Face, a film which takes many of the tropes of conventional immigrant storytelling and turns them on their head. Its originality and warmth have earned the film a small but devoted fanbase among the communities it represents, even being named by LGBTQ+ site Autostraddle as the third best film about queer women of all time. Yet the film remains little-known beyond those circles, even as Asian media representation has become a cultural talking point, and it has taken 15 years for the film industry to give Alice Wu the chance to make a second film, Netflix’s new teen movie The Half of It.
The fact that Saving Face holds a relatively marginal place in film history is disappointing, because it remains one of the best depictions of the Asian-American experience ever put on screen. The film was a true passion project for Wu, who left a successful job at Microsoft to pursue it, and endured the scrutiny of studio executives who repeatedly attempted to whitewash and straightwash a specifically Asian lesbian love story. Wil and her girlfriend Vivian (Lynn Chen) ultimately attain that all too rare thing in stories about women who love women – a happy ending. And throughout the film, Wu consistently rejects racialised stereotypes of tiger mothers and perfect Chinese daughters in favour of a sensitive, nuanced portrayal of the conflicts and confusions of immigrant families.
Wu’s unwavering refusal to capitulate to white standards feels all the more daring in a time when many Asian-American films seem a little too eager to aspire to whiteness. Always Be My Maybe, for example, originated from Randall Park and Ali Wong’s desire to create an “Asian-American version of When Harry Met Sally”. Crazy Rich Asians, meanwhile, offered an opulent, idealised vision of Singapore which almost entirely erased the city’s Malay and Indian minorities, presenting only its most squeaky-clean, Oxbridge-educated Chinese Singaporean elite. The film’s opening scene, in which Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor responds to being denied a hotel room by buying the entire hotel, is satisfying for its skewering of racism, but there is something uneasy about its implication that racial justice simply means becoming as rich and powerful as the white people who mistreated you.
It is important to recognise that these films are victories in many ways, and they mean a great deal to a group which has rarely seen itself on screen. But it is troubling that they often seem more concerned with fitting into cinematic conventions and structures which are dictated by whiteness, rather than claiming those structures for themselves. In Saving Face, by contrast, whiteness is almost totally irrelevant. None of its characters feel the need to prove how much they belong in American society, to demonstrate how good their English is or how much they’ve done for the country in order to show that they deserve respect. Indeed, about half the film’s dialogue is in Mandarin, and many of its English speakers have heavy Chinese accents (in contrast to, say, Henry Golding’s impeccable RP in Crazy Rich Asians). Saving Face neatly dispels the mythic notion of the ‘Good Immigrant’ whose respectability is defined by how assimilated and all-American they appear. Wil and Vivian prove that you can be talented, intelligent, and worthy and retain deep ties to your community – it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Those communal ties are also the source of another of the film’s strengths: its witty and earnest cultural realism. Authenticity is a key reason that Asian-American films resonate with their audiences, yet many of these stories rely heavily on the use of symbols and signifiers that often come across more like ornamental details than sincere cultural expressions. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, for example, features a “Korean yoghurt smoothie”, but no actual discussions of Korean culture (not to mention that the ‘smoothie’ in question, Yakult, is actually Japanese). There is a strange weightlessness to the way these films represent Asianness – they often tell rather than show, making surface-level gestures to Asian culture rather than embedding it into their narratives.
Saving Face, however, is deeply grounded in the community it represents. Rather than focusing on the identities and experiences of a few key protagonists, it offers a whole host of colourful side characters – judgemental mahjong night aunties, emotionally unintelligent immigrant dads, obnoxious Asian frat finance bros – who dot the landscape of Flushing’s Chinese enclave. These characters offer humour, but they are never caricatured – Wu sketches them with such warm humanity that they always feel deeply believable, and there is a tangible sense that the world they inhabit extends far beyond the handful of figureheads we are shown.
None of which is to say that Wu is unwilling to critique her community’s flaws. Flushing’s Chinese elders are not merely picky or benevolently traditional – they are homophobic, and the harsh magnitude of that social cruelty is given its full, crushing weight. The film never forgives the harm caused by this parochial conservatism, and its sympathy for a character like Ma, who suffers from her father’s spiteful coldness, never extends to the way she replicates this coldness in the treatment of her own daughter. For Wu, representing her community also means challenging the way it hurts its own members.
But she also doesn’t suggest that homophobia is inherent to Asian communities, or that being gay means abandoning your Asian identity. Flushing has its conservative factions, but throughout the film we also see characters who celebrate Wil and Vivian in their relationship – Wil’s other second-generation friends, Vivian’s endearing mother and, eventually, even Ma herself. Wu stated in an interview that “I tried to show a spectrum. Some of the Chinese American parents in this film don’t care if their daughter is gay, some do”. Saving Face offers a pluralistic definition of Asianness, showing the good and the bad alongside each other, criticising the latter without ever condemning the whole. When Wil and Vivian eventually reconcile at the film’s end, the scene takes place at Planet China, the very heart of their community. They are not forced to choose between being lesbians and being Asians – they are both at the same time, and no-one gets to tell them otherwise.
In a director’s note, Wu stated that Saving Face was a tribute to her mother. Over the course of the film, Wil’s mother realises that the same traditionalism which spurred her to mistreat her daughter has also been preventing her from pursuing love in her own life. “That she [Ma] ultimately breaks with tradition and lives on her own terms is a triumph I wanted my mother — and the world — to see,” Wu wrote. Even though Saving Face is ultimately Wil’s story, the fact she shares her happiness with her mother is integral to the film’s communal ethos. Wil’s liberation from the homophobic elements of her community would not be complete if she simply left and never came back. Instead, she and her mother reclaim the spaces of that community for themselves, freeing each other to be their true selves without fear of judgement. It is an ethos which Asian filmmakers, too, should take to heart. The best way to tell Asian stories is to do what Saving Face does: simply allow Asians to be themselves, for themselves, without the need to sacrifice anything. Alice Wu did that 15 years ago, and hopefully there are many more directors like her still to come.
Header image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics