Alice Wu’s semi-autobiographical “Saving Face” is only a slight variation on a theme we’ve seen much of in recent films, that of the gay person who comes out of the closet in a strict conservative environment. We’ve seen Mormon (“Latter Days”), Jewish (“Trembling Before G-d”) and old-world traditional (“Mambo Italiano”), and now here is Chinese.
But Wu knows her story is not unique, thank goodness, and manages to give it enough charming humor to make it fresh and enjoyable. If the assortment of wacky ethnic relatives feels a little too “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and if there is a clichéd “tell me you love me” moment in an airport — well, you can overlook that sort of contrivance. The movie wins you over with warmth and honesty.
Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), Wil for short, is an up-and-coming Manhattan surgeon who, unbeknownst to almost everyone, is a lesbian. Her traditional Chinese family — so traditional that they speak to her in Mandarin even when she answers them in English — calls her back to Flushing for community singles dances every Friday night. This “dip in the Chinese gene pool,” as Wil puts it, is useless for her but harmless enough. She’s not interested in meeting any of the men on parade there, but it’s a chance to see her college-professor grandfather (Jin Wang), progressive grandmother (Guang Lan Koh) and their daughter, Wil’s own widowed, youthful mother (Joan Chen).
At one of these dances, she runs into Vivian (Lynn Chen), a childhood acquaintance she doesn’t remember who is now a beautiful professional dancer and, like Wil, a lesbian. Vivian is actually “out,” though, and her family is supportive. Wil cannot imagine such a thing from her relatives, and so she keeps her burgeoning relationship with Vivian tightly under wraps.
This is hard to do, considering Wil’s mother has moved in with her. For you see, Ma has gotten pregnant. Refusing to name the father or to offer any other explanation, she has been banished from Flushing by her traditionalist father and exiled to Manhattan. Wil and her mother both have secret romances now. And both struggle over whether to follow their hearts or to honor their parents’ wishes.
It’s that parallel storyline that gives “Saving Face” some of its extra oomph. Coming-out stories are common enough, but seldom do the figures doing the coming out have mothers who are pregnant under mysterious circumstances. Mom’s story is sweet in its own right, too, perfectly played by the winsome Joan Chen, as she half-heartedly tries to find a husband in order to please her father.
Wu, a first-time filmmaker, won an award from the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment for her screenplay, which led to the film being produced. The competition must not have been fierce; the screenplay is above-average but by no means remarkable. It is the performances — Krusiec’s vulnerable, intelligent Wil; Lynn Chen’s headstrong Vivian; and especially Joan Chen in that supporting role — that distinguish it from many of the other coming-out comedies. Rather than beating us over the head with its message, it charms us into seeing its point of view on our own, unforced.
B (1 hr., 31 min.; in English, but with lots of subtitled Mandarin, too; )