Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: Alice Wu’s debut film Saving Face.
Late in the summer of 2018, my sister and I went to watch Crazy Rich Asians in theaters. Roughly two hours later, I remember reveling a bit, relishing the novelty of the moment as the credits rolled. It was the first time I’d ever sat in a packed auditorium to watch a Hollywood movie starring a primarily Asian cast. It almost didn’t feel right to me, as if two alien universes had briefly intersected before separating once again. But, of course, that division of worlds is a lie. Asian people have been in America, a part of America, for an awfully long time now. Still, the perception holds. The nomination of Minari by the Golden Globes as a “foreign film” is only the most recent example of how mainstream American media still views Asian Americans as irreconcilably strange, too different to really be a part of this country. Asking for representation in the movies I watch feels like chasing mirages in the desert sometimes. When you’re finally offered that gulp of water, it’s too little and not enough. You’re left to wonder if it was even worth all the effort when the reward is often so paltry. So, it was a true surprise to watch Saving Face, and feel remarkably seen.
Saving Face, like many other pieces of Asian American media, revolves around filial piety. Wil (Michelle Krusiec) is suddenly forced to house her mother, Ma (Joan Chen), after its discovered that Ma is pregnant with another child. As she is without a husband and refuses to give up the name of the baby’s father, Ma is cast out from the close-knit Chinese American community in Flushing by her father, Wai Gung (Jin Wang). Wil, meanwhile, has familial complications of her own. Though Wil’s life may outwardly meet Ma’s expectations, she is on the fast-track to becoming chief of surgery after all, her sexual orientation certainly doesn’t. In order to maintain both her familial ties and her individual desires, Wil divides her life into two. When she is with her mother, she plays the role of dutiful daughter and puts up with Ma’s set-up attempts. In private, she becomes involved with the beautiful dancer, Vivian (Lynn Chen). Of course, Ma has her own experience with double lives as evidenced by the pregnancy. But neither mother nor daughter seem capable of bridging the emotional gap between them, though they share so much in common. Explained in this way, the premise of Saving Face may seem all too rote. Just another tale of East Asian parents being overly involved, quashing the individuality of their children, pressuring them to prioritize family above all. But by allowing the story to focus on both Ma and Wil’s struggles, the film expands its scope. Ma isn’t written as an antagonist. There isn’t any one character who is the driver of the conflict. Rather the conflict takes place in the heart and mind, where belief lies. The cultural expectations weighing Ma and Wil down aren’t said by anyone as much as felt and internalized. Dominating everyone is a fear that familial love is only ever provisional, that family reputation is more important than any one person’s welfare. It isn’t that Ma and Wil don’t love each other. They shield off portions of their lives from each other, not because they hate each other, but to protect that love in fear of reprisal.
What I appreciate about Saving Face is that it demonstrates how this fear manifests in different forms. For instance, though Vivian’s parents are more accepting of her sexuality, they do not necessarily approve of her career choices. The film posits that one’s relationship with their parents is always a unique experience. Though you may expect your relationship to align according to certain cultural stereotypes, it can never be boiled down to anything that simple. Both parents and their children are deserving of being judged according to their own experiences and not based on broadly accepted generalizations. No one should bear the responsibility of being somebody they are not so that they can live up to a non-existent ideal. It is the false belief that homogeneity exists, the belief everyone in a community is the same, that breeds self-repression. In this way, the film avoids stereotyping and actually represents at least part of the Asian American experience. Not by building a box of Asian American characteristics but by showing how that box has always been a myth, a lie that we have collectively been told, even within the community itself.
The film is good in other ways too. Besides the messaging, it’s funny and romantic as well. Wil and Vivian get to have a full relationship, one that’s unique and a little complicated and even sexy. And while there were some complaints that the ending of this movie was too perfect, I’ll never begrudge a film that actually allows its queer couple to live happily ever after. Taken together, Saving Face feels like a rarity, a miracle. It almost feels too revelatory to have been made in 2004. Still, its comforting to know that a film like this can be made and that it can be done so well. To know that the breadth of stories to be told aren’t limited to just a few, told over and over again. One of the great joys of watching older films is getting to experience history, seeing how a piece of art reflects what was and influences what comes after. In Saving Faces, I got to see that my story is not unique. In fact, it has been told before. It was and is real. I may not have gotten the chance to watch Saving Face in a crowded theater. But I felt a sense of togetherness all the same.