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Face Value

'Saving Face' serves more than just another demographic

By Richard von Busack

In Saving Face, a romantic comedy based in New York, Wilhelmina Pang (Michelle Krusiec), Wil for short, falls in love. A medical resident at a hospital, Wil is dedicated to her job--so much so, that a friend observing her dreaminess over her new romance 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) is pregnant but isn't about to reveal the man who did it. She leaves her own father's house in 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 ever rising belly, and cramping Wil's style.

There is another complication: Wil is gay. Her new girlfriend, a professional dancer named Vivian (Lynn Chen), isn't very patient about keeping their relationship hidden. Wil, on the other hand, through Krusiec's subtle performance, shows us a girl who knows her sexuality but isn't ready to act on it. She tries to carry on a double life while soothing the feelings of her demanding mom.

Saving Face is noteworthy, not because it is the long-awaited Chinese lesbian movie out to serve yet another demographic. What's really important is South Bay director Alice Wu's accomplished sense of visuals and characterization. Saving Face transcends the schticky point-and-shoot cinematography and Neil Simonized interchanges seen in most ethnic love stories. It is apparent from Wu's 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. 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. 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.

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. I am struck, for instance, by the way 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.

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 (it seems certain that Ma was married off in an arranged marriage), 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.

Though it is understated, there is far more ardor in Saving Face than in the My Big Fat Greek Wedding genre. An assured and good-looking feature film, this charming romantic comedy breaks the rigid mold of ethnicity-of-the-week love stories. And though Wu shot on a very low budget, she still has a keenly developed since of color and surface. Wu is a director to watch for.


'Saving Face' screens at Rialto Cinemas Lakeside. 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.

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From the June 22-28, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.




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