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Face Time

San Jose director Alice Wu's first feature, 'Saving Face,' isn't big or Greek, but it is one funny film

By Richard von Busack

IT HAS been all been downhill for the arts since the word "demographic" was coined. That marketer's term claims that an audience only wants to see films about itself. The smart money figures that white boys only want white-boy films; Chinese will only concern themselves with The Joy Luck Club; and "chick flicks" are of interest primarily to ... well, chicks.

Film theorists—especially those who analyze spectatorship—try to argue that this niche theory doesn't really hold true. A white boy or a mere girl, for instance, might imagine themselves as Samuel L. Jackson.

As film theorist Angela McRobbie notes, something like Flashdance is obviously aimed at the male spectator. Jennifer Beals and her body double are laid out as pretty as you please for the ever-popular "male gaze." Yet, plot point to plot point, Flashdance is a chick flick, all about our heroine trying to make a living in the foundries while striving to be a dancer and find Mr. Right.

So, when filmmaker Alice Wu was going to the Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto in the mid-1980s, one of her favorite movies was about a Swedish boy negotiating life without parents: My Life As a Dog. And Wu hopes that her first feature, Saving Face (which opens June 3 in the valley), reaches people outside the Venn diagram intersection of Asian American and gay and lesbian cinema.

Saving Face went down the festival pike from Toronto to Sundance to opening night at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. And Wu is willing to hitch her movie onto the popular genre of "second-generation immigrant finds romance." The tag line she thought up for her movie's advertisements was "Not big, not Greek, not fat, still funny."

But as Wu says, "What I really wanted is that a 25-year-old white guy could suddenly relate to a 48-year-old Chinese woman ... or a 50-year-old black man could relate to a 29-year-old Chinese doctor. If that works, I've done my job. Once we strip away the differences, we're remarkably similar."

Leaving Flushing

Saving Face is a romantic comedy based in New York. Wilhelmina Pang (Michelle Krusiec), Wil for short, is in love. A medical resident at a hospital, she is dedicated to her job—so much so, that observing Wil's dreaminess over her new romance, a friend notes, "The only time I've seen you smiling like this is during surgery."

The problem is Wil's mother. The widowed 48-year-old Ma (actress and director Joan Chen, best known for Twin Peaks) just got kicked out of Wil's father's house. Ma, who is pregnant but isn't about to reveal the man who did it, leaves the Chinese-settled suburb of Flushing and moves in with her dutiful daughter.

There is only one bed in Wil's Manhattan apartment, and Ma claims half of it. She sits around, watching soap operas, nursing her bruised feelings and her ever-rising belly and cramping Wil's style.

And there is yet another complication: Wil is gay. Her new girlfriend, Vivian (Lynn Chen), isn't very patient about being hidden. She is a professional dancer and bold about it; during the excruciating first dinner between Vivian, Wil and Ma, the new girl ruffles the mother's feelings by presumptuously calling her "Auntie." So Wil tries to lead a double life while soothing the feelings of her demanding mom.

Saving Face isn't noteworthy because it is the long-awaited Chinese lesbian movie, ready to serve yet another demographic. What's really important is Wu's accomplished sense of surface and visuals. Saving Face transcends the point-and-shoot visuals and the shticky Neil Simonized interchanges seen in most ethnic love stories.

It is apparent from Wu's cinematic technique that she didn't watch a lot of television growing up. The undistinguished visuals of Kissing Jessica Stein or My Big Fat Greek Wedding come to mind fast. But it would be wrong to lambaste them alone.

At this point, almost every midsize film festival is cluttered with TV-size romances, featuring gusty performances by character actors playing all kinds of trans-Danubian or East of Suez sticklers for tradition. Put a shawl or a fez on some old sitcom hack, and you're ready to roll.

That's why I commend the subtlety in Saving Face, the lambency of the love scenes and the authenticity of the battered apartments. Krusiec's subtle performance shows us a girl who already knows her sexuality, but isn't ready to act on it. As director, Wu has created mood using color and the placement of the camera—things that are neglected in the average first-timer's film, particularly when they are writers turned directors. If you think that kind of craft goes without saying, it's time to reacquaint yourself with all the clones of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I am struck, for instance, by how Wu lingers over the monumental rivets and looming girders in the subway station, structures that dwarf the fragile-looking Wil as she heads back downtown after a session at the hands of her interfering old-country relatives.

Also, Wu doesn't milk the exotic for big laughs. She doesn't underline the irony that Wil still uses a tongue scraper, that old Chinese folk aid, even though she's training to be a surgeon.

The pressure on Wil to get married—from her mother, her grandfather and her mother's friends—equals the pressure from Vivian to declare her love. But in the end, pressure affects Wil and Ma alike. Both of them have been dutiful daughters, doing what they've been told all their lives. Now both are conscious of the eyes of relatives and peers on them.

"One billion Chinese people, two degrees of separation," Wil complains.

At the end, the hesitation of Wil and Ma appears ready to keep them silent and miserable. It seems certain that Ma was married off in an arranged marriage. Lacking a declaration of love from Wil, Vivian is about to depart alone through the pale, plastic science-fiction tube at the International Terminal at JFK Airport, ready to head to Paris.

A Geek's Life

I met Alice Wu at an outdoor Dolores Park cafe in San Francisco, on one of the rare warm days this spring. The light gleamed on the fronds of the Mission's palm trees. On the steep slope of the park, two small groups of kids contended for a soccer ball. Couples played tennis in their tennis cages or plastered themselves flat on blankets on the grass. The J-Church streetcar, the size of a toy train from where we sat, wormed its way up the crest of the hill. (It's a particularly splendid view that I've only seen in one movie about San Francisco: the final shot in Brian De Palma's Casualties of War.)

Wu was so energetic that it was not so much a matter of interviewing her as it was a matter of keeping up with her. She is on the cusp of her 30s, lean-bodied, an engaging fast talker, although she is circumspect on some points, such as the matter of whether she's seeing anyone. ("I can't talk about that. I will say that I'm gay, but I'm way too private to go into that.")

She was wearing a thin knit shirt, a leather jacket, Levis and boots and was toying with an iPod ("A lot of Carpenters, these days. Modest Mouse. 'Collide' by Howie Bessie. Rachel Yamagata. Everything but reggae and certain techno. When the music is monotonous, I tune out.")

Wu was born in Kaiser Hospital in Santa Clara, the daughter of academics who escaped the Cultural Revolution in China. "My parents were Mandarin speakers," Wu says. "My second language is Spanish, since everyone else in the apartment complex was from Mexico. Dad was getting his grad degree in Stanford. We lived in Escondido Village, and then we lived on an apartment on Tully Road" in San Jose.

She was always a reader. "Secretly, I always wanted to be a writer, but I never wrote anything for public consumption. I didn't think anyone would care. I distinctly remember my mom saying to me, 'Look, you know if you prove a theorem, no one will say you're wrong, but if you write a book, they could just decide not to buy it.' Very sage advice from a parent who knew I'd have a student loan to pay off some day. I was good at math and science, so I declared computer science."

Even years after she left the computer world, Wu still calls herself a geek. "With film you have to be a geek, to take care of all the details. Working with film you also have to be able to work with a lot of different people, and that's something else I learned in high tech."

But despite studying computers, she continued to be a film fan, catching movies in Palo Alto, and writing.

"I'd always written short stories for myself," she recalls. "Not that I took writing classes, because I'd sooner eat glass than show somebody what I wrote.

"When I finished grad school, I went to Seattle. I took one of those all-consuming jobs at Microsoft. I had a real good job in multimedia publishing, right on the cusp the Internet boom. At the end of my time there, the company was trying to figure out its strategy with my division. I don't think we made Bill Gates a dime in the entire time I was there.

"There were really about two or three months where no one in my group had anything to do. It was a void. I didn't want to write a marketing report to my boss on a product I knew that would never come out."

At this time, Wu took a writing class and began a novel. Under the advice of the class's teacher, a film producer, she changed the work into a screenplay. The teacher liked it and urged her to move to Hollywood or New York to get the film made. Since she had enough money saved to live cheap for some time, Wu headed for Brooklyn.

"I gave myself five years," she says. "The first four years, every door slammed in my face, which is expected. Here, my story's not unique in any way. The first three years I spent learning how to work in the field. The fourth year is when I was talking to producers. And everyone was like, 'You are never going to get this film made. It's Chinese, it's lesbian and it's half in Mandarin with subtitles. Could you make it Latino? Latino is big. If you're going to have to be ethnic, make it Latino.'

"Someone else said, 'How about Reese Witherspoon as the daughter and Ellen Burstyn as the mother?' I can understand that from a Hollywood perspective, but I feel that making a film is so hard, you might as well make the movie you want to make. If I just wanted to make money, I would have stayed in computer science."

New York Stories

Producer Teddy Zee of Will Smith's production company Overbrook Entertainment eventually picked up Wu's script, bringing it to Sony with Wu as director. Wu, whose only previous experience as a director had been making the short film Trick or Treat, faced a tight shooting schedule.

"We had 27 days, no time for reshoots, and everything was going to have to be completely designed before we started. The good news is that I trained as an editor. I didn't go to film school, but what I did do is edit." (Wu learned from Alan Oxman, who edited most of Todd Solondz's films: Palindromes, Welcome to the Dollhouse, etc.)

"I had a very good idea of what kind of coverage I needed," she explains. "I'm a big fan of Pedro Almodóvar, and I love how lush his textures and saturated colors are. That's what I was trying to go for. Granted, we didn't have the same production-design budget that Almodóvar has. It was great to shoot in New York, because it has the best production designers in the world. I didn't have a soundstage, but I could choose locations.

"For example, Vivian's apartment was a last-minute addition, after an original location dropped out. In the original scene, there's no opening up of the double doors so she can show what she calls 'my view.' It just seems like such a New York thing in a movie to have the double doors opened and the view showed off, so we opened up the view, and it's really horrible." (The view shows a grimy flat wall accompanied by dubbed-in sounds of breaking glass and a carjacking taking place offscreen.)

"Wil, being of a nervous nature, claims the view is nice. That moment always gets the biggest, hugest laugh. It's when the audience falls in love with these people falling in love."

Riding the subway around New York gave Wu the idea of how to play with the movie's central metaphor: the tension between the public and the private face. "I think the subway is the best possible inspiration for any writer," she says, "because you're stuck in the same space with all these other people, and these people can only keep a public face on for so long. Fairly soon, they drop their private faces. Fairly soon, they lead their private lives very publicly. "What you get to see, then, is the masks falling. Like when you and I are talking right now, I'm aware you're watching me. So subconsciously, I'm sure I have some sort of composure to my face. If I were sitting here and I had no idea I was outside there, who knows what my face would look like? But you might see something—something I'm not willing to admit to myself.

"That's why film is such a fantastic media. To the audience you get a chance to see a character that's not aware they are being observed. So a lot of my favorite shots in Saving Face are scenes where Ma is facing the camera. The daughter is behind her. Her daughter does not get to see what we see, and the moment the mother turns to us, her mask of being a mother drops, and we see that she's scared.

"Often when I see Asian characters in movies, they're stereotypical. They're demonstrating what a person with a 1600 SAT score looks like. But what I really wanted here was to have two characters trying so hard to be the perfect daughters, to do things right.

"I think this isn't just Chinese, though. If you're the child of immigrants, you're not just representing yourself, you're representing the entire community. If you threw away your own 'face,' it's not just your face. You're throwing away the face of the entire community. Ironically when the mother really fucks up, it galvanizes the daughter, gives her a chance to play outside the lines a bit, too."

Making Saving Face in English and Mandarin was, Wu says, "nonnegotiable to me. It's important to me that these characters feel authentic. If this community is going to be so conservative, they'd never be talking in English and shopping at Costco. This is a very different kind of immigrant we're talking about. I thought the more realistic the character, the more true they are, and thus the more universal Saving Face gets.

"Hopefully, people will see it and, hopefully, will think, It's like my Jewish family or my Irish family, even though the cultural trappings are very specifically Chinese. I want people to relate to the character, to that relationship between the mother and the daughter, and between the lovers."

Wu couldn't write in Mandarin, and so she asked her mother to help out. Alice told her mother what dialogue she wanted in English, and her mother translated.

"We did this over a three-month period. But we would last about five minutes because we'd start up fighting about the dialogue. 'What kind of daughter would speak to her mother that way?!' And I would be a total brat. 'I'm being creatively oppressed here! It's just like my childhood!' And she would very justifiably slam the phone down on me. It was funny, it was very dramatic, but we got through it. She did a fantastic job.

"Flash-forward a few months, and we're driving up a stretch of Highway 1, a beautiful day like today. I looked over and said, 'Mom, now you know. You've read the script. You know what the script's about. You do know that once this film's out, all your friends will know why I'm not married.'

"And she was, like, 'Yeah, I thought about that.'

"She said, 'I'm not going to lie to you, this will be hard. But if this is what you want, then this is what I want for you.'

"I mean, I really adore my mom, but it was a hard 10 years, coming out to her and all of that. She came from a very conservative background. I'm incredibly lucky and proud of how she's just able to—I mean, I wrote the film actually for her, because of some times when I saw her go through something difficult. She was 48 when I wrote Saving Face. ... She wasn't pregnant like Ma was in the movie, but I saw her get ostracized from the Chinese community.

"And to her credit, she was very incredibly brave and made her life work. She was willing to grow even in her 50s, and I think that's why I was lucky enough to have her accept me now. Now I have this really wonderful relationship with her.

"The more specific you get, the more universal the story gets. Ironically, by showing the dirty laundry, showing that perfect Chinese daughters have desires, and individual wants, it shows how human they are. It creates a sense of liberation."

Saving Face (R; 96 min.), directed and written by Alice Wu, photographed by Harlan Bosmajian and starring Michelle Krusiec, Joan Chen and Lynn Chen, opens June 3 at selected theaters.

Alice in Videoland

Alice Wu talks about the movies that led her to 'Saving Face'

IN ONE OF Saving Face's comic bits, Ma wanders into a mainstream video store looking for Chinese movies. All she can find is The Last Emperor, The Joy Luck Club and XXX Asian porn. Baffled, she takes one of the stroke flicks home and is shocked silent by it. "Who's your Asian daddy?" moans a stud, unseen by the camera. "We start off using a little of stock porn sounds," Wu explains, "but I needed to build [on it], so that's me, my editor, my editor's husband and the sound designer doing the moans." She adds, "I guess if you kept going on that shelf you'd get to Rush Hour and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That would be the only Asian films mainstream America would have any clues about."

I asked Wu what her favorite films would be and kibitzed.

WU: Definitely The Joy Luck Club.

METRO: I never touch the soy sauce in the Chinese restaurant without thinking of that scene about the white guy dousing the soy sauce on the mom's dinner. I always check around to make sure no one is looking.

WU: I was so moved after I saw The Joy Luck Club that I told my mother that if she ever needed it, I'd make stew out of my arm. She flipped out! "That's disgusting! You made that story up! I never heard of such a thing! I don't want you feeding me when I get old!"

Another movie would be Xiu Xiu, The Sent-Down Girl by Joan Chen. (It's pronounced, as few Caucasians know, as "Show Show.")

METRO: Xiu Xiu is a brilliant film. There's a band named after it.

WU: After I saw Xiu Xiu, I was genuinely depressed for two solid weeks. When you're growing up, the stories you hear about the Cultural Revolution are like fairy tales. "If you're bad we'll send you back to China." It's like the boogeyman. Obviously, I didn't think my parents would have done it, but they liked to remind me: "We came to this country for you, and still you misbehave." It's kind of depressing that I won't be able to use that on my kids. What'll I say? "Behave, or we're sending you to Bakersfield."

Another one of my favorites I saw when I was growing up was in North Beach in San Francisco: An Autumn's Tale with Chow Yun-Fat, directed by Mabel Chung. It was filmed in New York ... and that's when I knew I wanted to move to New York. He plays a waiter in Chinatown who doesn't speak a word of English, only Cantonese. His female cousin comes to visit him, and he complains to her that women are all "chavo." It takes her a while to realize that he is saying "trouble." I named named my cat "Chavo" in honor of that scene.

Of course, I love Wong Kar-wai, too. Anything by Pedro Almodóvar, My Life As a Dog, anything by Richard Linklater. If I can pattern myself on anyone it would be a mix of Almodóvar, Cameron Crowe and Linklater. When I see anything from those directors, it strikes me how much they love their characters. Even if I don't like that particular film they've made, it's always clear that they have made the film they want to make. Whether I might love it or hate it, I feel that kind of commitment is inspiring.

I hope I get to make several films. Some of them might not be ones people like, and some of them might be crowd pleasers, but I hope there'll always be films where I was stretching myself. With Saving Face I made the film I wanted to make, and I hope I always get a chance to do that.

Richard von Busack

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From the May 25-31, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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