Can I just say that I really like this movie?
Watching "Saving Face," with its quiet charm and perfect pacing, it's hard to believe that it's a low-budget independent film. The production values are high, the script is funny and wise, the characters and performances are endearing, and a slick structure makes it feel like a movie that could have come out of a major studio.
Confess, now. When you think of an independent film, doesn't it conjure up an image of an expressionistic, self-conscious, perhaps even anti-establishment Film with a capital F? One with plenty of long, artsy shots and interesting angles, brooding or off-the-wall performances, shocking or deliberately mundane scenes, fragmentized narratives, Pinter-like dialogue (or Beckett-like silences), and themes that Hollywood wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole-vaulter? There's almost as much pressure on an Indie filmmaker to be somehow original within those avant-garde boundaries as there is on commercial filmmakers to turn a profit.
But newcomer Alice Wu seems comfortable doing things her own way. Her screenplay for "Saving Face" won a CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) award, and so impressed judge Teddy Zee, from Will Smith's production company, that he passed it on to Smith and a day later got the nod to give Wu the go-ahead to direct the film. "Saving Grace" was shown at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, but if you go into the theater or pop the dvd into your player expecting something typically "Indie," you might be slightly disappointed. Though "Saving Face" is an absolutely wonderful film, it's as mainstream as it gets—an Asian-American variation of the old screwball romantic comedies, though with a much softer tone, less frenetic pace, and surprisingly organic humor. That's because Wu focuses more on character than on plot, and it's basically her own story of how difficult it was for her to come out as a gay woman to her Chinese-American family in New York.
Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), who prefers to go by "Wil" and wears comfortable, loose-fitting men's clothes, is a reconstructive surgeon who's on the fast-track to become chief surgeon at the hospital. But when she meets and falls for Vivian (Lynn Chen), the ballet-dancer daughter of her boss, things become more complicated. And her fears of "coming out" to her family are all but reinforced when her widowed mother is thrown out of her grandparents' Flushing house and becomes a social pariah. Her old-school professor grandfather (Jin Wang) shouts, "My own rotten flesh has gotten pregnant without a father. Don't come back until you have a husband to match the child," and so Ma (Joan Chen) literally turns up on Wil's doorstep. What can a good daughter do but take her in? Even Ma's mah-jongg friends shun her. Soon, however, Ma begins to cramp her style, and so she does what every privacy-starved roommate would do: she tries to set her mother up on a series of dates so she can get married and move out.
Stylistically, there are some interesting things going on in almost every frame—whether it's the way Wu composes a shot, the way she uses color, the way she judiciously employs a soft-focus background, the way she pays homage to "When Harry Met Sally" and director Pedro Almadovar, or the way she slowly pans from character to character and uses associative cuts to set up fun juxtapositions. In one such moment, as Wil and Vivian engage in some R-rated lovemaking, there's a quick cut to Ma, who'd rented a porno flick and is sitting in a darkened apartment, watching in combined fascination and horror. Ma and Wil make similar journeys in this film, and also learn to appreciate each other. Though there are Capraesque "feel-good" moments, Wu manages to avoid sentimentality except at the very end, when the denouement brings the film's screwball roots to the surface in a bit of "Bringing Up Baby" madness—and for that one insistent moment, she can be forgiven, especially since, as Shakespeare once penned, "All's Well That Ends Well."
There's also plenty of frame-to-frame interest provided by the characters and the writing. Wu has a good eye for detail and a good ear for dialogue. Her film both celebrates Asian-American culture and pokes wry and knowing fun at it—from the not-so-attractive men and their less-than-suave manner, to the "aunties" who tear people to shreds with their gossip. As the characters slip in and out of English and Mandarin, we get a feel for the bicultural world in which they live. Krusiec and Lynn Chen make a cute couple, and comfortable enough with each other to joke about kissing in front of Sundance audiences. But Krusiec and Joan Chen also have great chemistry, and the three principle actresses show a great range, easily handling comic moments as well as dramatic ones. Even the minor characters couldn't feel more real, and to populate a film with so many flesh-and-blood characters is an achievement for a first-time writer and director.
Video: The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, mastered in High Definition with great color saturation and contrasts. The picture quality is superb in any light, with practically no graininess.
Audio: "Saving Face" is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 or French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with the characters also speaking much of the time in Mandarin with English or French subtitles. The sound is as slick as the video.
Extras: Sony Classics has come up with some nice extras for this title, including a better-than-average director's commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, a Sundance Diary, and five deleted scenes with optional commentary. Wu's full-length commentary is as honest and unassuming as her film. For some sections she has a great deal to say, and we learn things as viewers that really enable us to grasp the characters better. In one such scene, where Wil is trying to urge her mother to wear something more flashy on her first date in years, Wu tells us that Mom obviously shops in secret for herself, though she suspects she may never wear those dresses—and that it's all a part of her gradual release into pleasuring herself and coming into her own sexuality as a really late bloomer. As for the graphic sex scene between Chen and Krusiec, Wu tells how it felt necessary and important, rather than the gratuitous lesbian lovemaking it might have been in another film—a scene that "isn't as much about sex as it is about the mother calling" as Wil was letting herself freely go so that she became her real, uncensored self.
In other scenes, Wu is honest and says, as she does with some of the deleted scenes, only that she thinks a scene "pretty." The deleted scenes could have easily been retained in the film, they're so polished—but curiously, with one exception, Wu tells us what the scenes accomplish rather than why they were cut, or if it pained her to cut them. The Sundance Diary has a lot of ceremonial fluff and perhaps not enough shots of the audience or festivalgoers to convey a real feel for the experience, but we do get more of Wu sharing how important she thinks it is for a filmmaker to interact with an audience and to explain parts of the film . . . and then doing so.
Bottom Line: It may not be an Indie original, but "Saving Face" puts a completely different face on the classic screwball comedy. It's a charming and funny film. Wu enables us to not only laugh at some of the situations, but to understand more about Chinese-American attitudes and culture and to appreciate those aspects of human nature we share. It's a moving film, which is partly what Wu intended. "If somebody said 'I saw your film and it made me call my mother, or my daughter," she says in a behind-the-scenes feature, I would be done!"