Review: Saving Face
A perfect encapsulation of what it's like to be Chinese American.
Welcome to Tongzhi Tuesday, a series where I’ll be reviewing queer Asian and AAPI content in whatever form that may come in, whether it be movies, TV, music, or the occasional manhua. Subjects and tone will range from comical to serious, depending on my mood. Yes, this is a veiled excuse to talk about the things I like. Want to suggest something for me to review? Leave me a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
tongzhi (同志): lit. “same aspiration,” meant to denote “comrade” but has been adopted by the Mandarin-speaking LGBTQ+ community to mean “gay” or “queer”
Originally, this week I was going to review the Heaven Official’s Blessing donghua that’s now streaming on Funimation, but none of the episodes past the first will play on the mobile app (apparently this has been a longstanding issue that the support team promises me that they are fixing), and Funimation’s video player won’t work on my computer, either. This is particularly frustrating for me, as I read and loved the webnovel last year and have been literally counting down the days until I had enough time to sit down and watch the donghua adaptation, only to be so thoroughly rebuffed at the starting line. So my official review of Funimation’s streaming service is that it’s useless to me, and yet I can’t go on without it, since Heaven Official’s Blessing isn’t being hosted anywhere else.
Irked beyond reason, I perused my watchlist to find a title that might placate my queer thirst, and landed upon Saving Face, the 2004 directorial debut of Alice Wu, of The Half of It fame. I can’t really think of another time I saw a Chinese American lesbian in film other than The Feels (and, obviously, The Half of It). And Saving Face has two of them.
The first is Wilhelmina Pang (Michelle Krusiec), or Wil for short, who embodies what so many Asian parents would see as enviably successful: she’s a talented young surgeon working in NYC. But the catch is, obviously, that she’s gay. During a large dinner at the aptly named banquet hall Planet China, Wil meets Vivan Shing, a modern dancer. The attraction is immediate as they catch each other’s eyes across the room, and they proceed to romance each other from there. What throws a wrench into the whole thing and takes the romcom on an unconventional turn is the reveal that Wil’s mom Gao, who is unmarried and forty-eight years old, is pregnant. Unwilling to divulge who the father is, Gao is kicked out of her parents’ house and moves in with her daughter, whose living habits clash with Gao’s immediately.
With these two parallel storylines, the film is able to reach deep into the soul of what it means to be Chinese American. For those not in the know, “saving face” is an important and entrenched concept in Chinese culture, to the extent that we have a commonly-used expression about “throwing [away your] face” if you bring dishonor upon yourself and your family (and your cow, etc.). Public image is everything; as exemplified with Wil’s mom, putting even one toe out of line earns you complete ostracization. The auntie network will eat well, gorging full on gossip. You don’t even have to be the one in the wrong, as with Vivian’s mother whose husband left for a younger woman — you just have to be perceived to be the one in the wrong.
So the stakes are high for Wil to conform and keep her sexuality a secret. This, of course, upsets Vivian, who doesn’t want to keep their relationship behind closed doors. Krusiec plays Wil’s reluctance for openness with aching palpability — every time the two are in public together, Wil keeps her distance and reacts poorly to physical intimacy. Who cares what they think? Vivian asks. It’s a question posed not just for Wil, but for the movie’s Asian American viewers, many of us who feel constrained by parental and societal expectations. So it’s refreshing, even healing, to watch Wil and Vivian navigate their way out from under the weight of these expectations and embody who they actually are or what they truly want.
While the relationship between Wil and Vivian is satisfyingly sweet and sensual, I’d argue that the real focus of the movie is between Wil and her mom. The two women clearly love each other but struggle with communication (a common theme with Asian parents and their children), so Wil tends to find out things about her mother in roundabout ways, and Gao is a master at avoiding or sidestepping topics she doesn’t want to talk about with Wil. The steady, warm bridging of understanding between mother and daughter is the true joy of Saving Face; there’s even a delightful subversion of The Graduate’s last scene that feels so honest and earned that I almost couldn’t believe that Mike Nichols hadn’t time-traveled and stolen the idea from Wu.
I loved Saving Face, and I am completely biased in this admission. It was my childhood bottled up in a sweet nostalgic drink, capturing exactly what the Chinese American community in New York City felt like in the early 2000s. The conversations in Chinglish, packets of Chinese medicine, giant restaurant banquet halls, trips to Flushing — if I’m not wrong, I even caught a few lines of Shanghainese, a language I grew up around but unfortunately never attained any understanding of. But I think that even without having this shared experience, you’ll likely find this movie enjoyable. Alice Wu’s storytelling is tender, thoughtful, and human, allowing each character to express themselves fully on screen, and affording even the least likable ones a little grace. Wong Kar-Wai once said he could tell by the way a movie was shot if the director loved their characters or not; I can tell Wu really loved hers.
Saving Face is currently streaming on Prime Video, but please don’t watch it until after March 15th, as there’s a boycott of Amazon going on this week.
I doubt anyone is really asking this, but if you’re indignantly shaking your computer screen with a, Hey you, why have you only been posting gay Asian shit lately? Have I been hook, line, and sinkered into thinking that this Substack was to be a place for thoughtful commentary on all of cinema, only to be met each time in my email inbox with the single-minded, narrow scope of Tongzhi Tuesday? — rest assured, all the other stuff is still in the works, and despite my previous promises of easy, breezy, Covergirl, I’m up to my neck in drafts. For those of you who may not know, I actually quit my full-time job in January to become a freelance writer, which means I’m trying to save the very best film crit ideas for pitches I may actually get paid for, as opposed to publishing them for free on this here rag. It also means I now spend approximately 80% of my work day pitching and 20% of my time work day writing the pitches that get picked up, so unfortunately in the time I have left, Tongzhi Tuesday reviews are about all I can do. I’m hoping that eventually I’ll be able to get through the 5 or so drafts I have lined up for RABBLEROUSE that are a little bit too incendiary to be published anywhere else.
So! In essence, please bear with me. I’m going through a bit of a life change right now and as always, am trying to juggle the 50 billion projects I have on my plate.
Also, if you do happen to be asking that hypothetical question, why are you mad at gay Asian shit? Don’t be mad at gay Asian shit. That’s like, 95% of my identity, anyway.