The third night of NewFest‘s Queering the Canon: Rom-Coms retrospective series showcase Saving Face. Alice Wu’s debut feature film, released in 2004, tells the story of a Chinese-American lesbian and her mother living in New York City.
April 30th brought us the third installment of NewFest’s Queer rom-com series: Saving Face. Saving Face follows Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), a lesbian and surgeon, and her mother Gao (Joan Chen). Gao is attempting to set Wil on dates with men from their community – whom Wil is reasonably not interested in.
Things start to change for Wil when Vivian (Lynn Chen) makes an appearance at a community event. Following this fateful sighting, Gao reveals that she is pregnant out of wedlock. She is kicked out of Wil’s grandparent’s house and moves in with Wil.
As the movie continues Wil and her mother must work through their differences. Wil must reconcile that her mother holds more traditional values than she does, and her mother has to come to terms with her daughter’s sexuality. Wil and Vivian also need to make decisions. Wil is afraid to show affection in public and Vivian is torn between traveling to Paris for a ballet program.
I love Saving Face because it exemplifies that family drama is complex and ever-changing. No one is bad or evil, just complicated. The film gives everyone their happy ending, which is transformative as queer films usually end in tragedy or a lack of acceptance from one’s family. Wil and Vivian reunite and show their love to their community and Gao gets to be with the man she loves. Although Wil is presented as the film’s central character, her and her mother both grow in parallel to one another. It’s a film rooted in family dynamics and the ways that people can grow to accept new things.
There’s a lot of humor in Saving Face. Imagine having a life and career distanced from your parents, only to have them stay with you and be in your home all day. That’s Wil’s life for most of the film. She tries to keep her new love hidden from her mother, who is keeping a secret from Wil as well. The sense of community is also present throughout the film, often pushing Wil and Gao together as they must “save face” and live with each other and their secrets. Saving Face ends beautifully as Gao and Wil accept each other and bring this acceptance to those around them.
interview with Alice wu
I had the exciting opportunity to speak with Alice Wu before the screening of Saving Face. I asked her some questions about the film and her 2020 film The Half of It.
When I was doing some research I saw that you had a five year process for Saving Face, and I was wondering how that process unfolded for you?
AW: “It wasn’t really a five year process; it was a five year deadline. It was more like I had only enough money to live without having to work. So literally I was 27, 28 years old and I thought alright, if I quit my job now I thought five years was long enough to try for someone who hadn’t gone to film school. It seemed like long enough to give it a college try without being so lost that I would go destitute. I thought, the worst thing that’ll happen is I’ll be 33 and I’ll go back and find another job.”
Were there any obstacles or triumphs that you faced during those five years making the film, especially as a woman of color and a lesbian?
AW: “Sure, but it’s been so long. I think the main obstacle that nobody really thinks is that’s not what movies looked like back then. At least in terms of the ones that were financed. Nowadays that storyline feels much more financeable but at the time it definitely seemed like “okay, it’ll certainly be indie” and it didn’t feel like the world was clamoring for Asian or lesbian stories, let alone Asian-lesbian stories and it’s actually quite a surprise to me even now, but certainly in the last couple of years… I had no idea that anyone even knew who I was… I suppose one of the funny things about being that specific is that it had the funds to get made and had such a cultural impact 17 years later.”
Aside from Netflix financing The Half of It, were there other differences in your experience making Saving Face?
AW: “The two movies were made 15 years apart, and I’m just a different person. But indie film is indie film. The crew was definitely younger on The Half of It and I’m not totally sure why that was the case, but I loved both crews. The other thing is that Saving Face had so many Chinese and Taiwanese faces in the cast and extras and The Half of It was set in eastern Washington which was very white. I did remember feeling like it was so funny to look around and think “oh my god there’s so many white people.”
Other than that, it’s always going to be different when you have different heads of department but I feel like the experiences were similar. There’s never enough money or time but that’s part of the joy, especially when it’s a labor of love. You really see people pull through and work towards their best and I felt that both times and I felt very fortunate to have the cast and the crew that I did both times.”
Were there any new technologies that affected the films?
AW: “The reality is I got the same amount of time to shoot both films, but the difference is I shot Saving Face on 35mm. It might have been close to the last indie films that still got to shoot on 35, I think not too long after that things started switching over to digital. So it’s interesting shooting The Half of It on an Alexa. For me it doesn’t change that much because I am kinda the queen of “we got it on the second take, we’re moving on”, maybe because I trained as an editor. I’m a big fan of preplanning things so it’d be getting what you needed and moving on to the next thing.”
Saving Face is probably based on your own experiences and identity, but did you have any outside influences from other artists or any other films?
AW: “That’s the funny thing, none of the things that happened in the movies happened in my life. It’s very fictional, but I am an Asian-American lesbian so emotionally they’re both true but I think the storylines aren’t.
I grew up watching a lot of old-fashioned classic romantic comedies and classic movies and I think that certainly affected it. Because I wasn’t allowed to watch TV growing up, the only thing we were allowed to watch would be classic movies or Chinese soap operas, so I’m sure that had an effect. I think novels had a big impact. I read a lot, so I suspect that probably fed into it. I loved a lot of early Catherine Crowe, and of course I loved a lot of early Ang Lee. I loved Maria Maggenti’s The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. I loved the movie Tootsie. It’s a weird range but those were the sort of things that I’m sure somewhere affected my psyche.”
How did you aspire to influence other young Asian and queer storytellers?
AW: Oh, no. I definitely don’t have that large a sense of self-importance. I honestly didn’t think either movie would get made when I wrote them. When I wrote The Half of It Crazy Rich Asians hadn’t come out yet, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before hadn’t come out yet. I just wrote things I loved. I wrote it very specifically and personally.
I think I’m always shocked and astonished when one is that specific that it can often make people relate to things and connect to things more strongly and I suspect it’s because when things are specific they start to feel real. When things feel real people start to engage with it in a different emotional way. And so I’m really happy that so many different kinds of people feel inspired by that. Both movies far exceeded what I ever would have expected would happen.
Now that they’ve come out I’m really heartened. I’ve met a lot of aspiring filmmakers or people who have already made a film and are trying to make their next one, and I’m excited by the kinds of stories that will be coming out. And if any of them are inspired by something that I made then that’s even better. Any time you make something that can touch someone in a very human way and that could maybe then make them feel like it is conceivable, that whatever their specific emotional story is is therefore worthy of telling then that’s always a win.”