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Not quite saved, but still good enough

Topher Mahoney | Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Alice Wu’s “Saving Face,” one of the movies in last week’s “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives, Spectatorships” series, takes a look at the intersecting lives of Chinese Americans living in New York City.

Written and directed by first-timer Wu, “Saving Face” mainly follows the story of a young lady named Wil, a surgery resident who falls in love with Vivian, a ballet dancer. Vivian is also the daughter of the chief of surgery at Wil’s hospital. This spurs Wil to keep the illicit relationship secret from her extremely tightly knit, traditional and conservative Chinese community.

In a concurrent plot line, Wil’s middle-aged widowed mother becomes pregnant and refuses to reveal the father’s identity. This leads Wil’s grandfather to disown her unless she can find a husband. With no place to go, Wil’s mother moves in with Wil, and hijinks ensue.

Alice Wu’s script keeps things bouncy throughout by mixing different plots. The film is part mystery (who is the baby’s father?) and part romance with sort of an unfamiliar, foreign aspect. The Chinese immigrant milieu nevertheless is set in the every-city, New York.

“Saving Face” is also a coming-of-age story. But the direction tends to be unimaginative and of little consequence.

Wil’s mother is the most interesting character. She’s a hypocrite. As a victim of love’s mischance, which brings shame upon her family, Wil’s mother should understand Wil’s predicament as a fellow community outsider. But her only response to Wil’s sexual orientation is to ignore it – thus perpetuating the unspoken hostile attitude towards Wil’s sexuality.

Wil’s mother also starts the film as someone who’s never really set foot outside her Chinese immigrant neighborhood. She has never lived by herself. She has race anxieties, and, most importantly, she’s never dated before, complicating her urgent search for a husband.

But Vivian and Wil make a fairly uninteresting pair. Wil is the wide-eyed novice in the rites of love. She never leaves that gee-whiz act behind, nor does Wil’s love ever get complicated, which means the possibility for conflict remains unexplored.

As a simply drawn polar opposite, Vivian seems to just breeze in out of nowhere, already certain of her attraction to Wil and of Wil’s attraction to her. Equally uncomplicated is their falling-out – it just sort of happens.

The time they spend during the relationship is insignificant. As a romantic plot, it almost falls secondary to the subplot involving Wil’s mother’s dating habits. Wil, for a surgery resident, seems to have both an unusual amount of time on her hands.

Also implausible is the large amount of energy she seems willing to expend on things that a closeted lesbian would find pointless, such as weekly dances at the Chinese social club, which functions as a stand-in for the stereotypically conservative Chinese community as a whole. Both of them have their own versions of generic young Asian-American parental issues, the perennial fodder for drama in films of this sort.

But that might be the rub. This is a film that was featured in the gay and lesbian film event. Normalization of the relationship between Vivian and Wil to the point at which it felt dull and familiar was probably an ideological victory in of itself.

Either that, or Wu was afraid to push buttons in what was clearly intended to be a mainstream romantic movie.