We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Alice Wu's _Saving Face_: Mothers, Daughters, and Lesbians · 27 June 05

My dear Fanny,

Izzy and I saw Alice Wu’s film, Saving Face yesterday. I was going to begin by saying it has delicate charm, but hesitated lest such a pair of words conjure up some stereotype of Chinese art. While the film is definitely about Chinese people living in Flushing, Queens, and presents three women characters struggling genuinely to live a modern personally fulfilling existence without breaking away wholly from Chinese customs and mores, Wu’s reach is universal.

The situation: Wil (Michelle Krusiec) is a lesbian or gay young woman who works long hours as a physician-in-training (it’s not clear whether she’s a resident or further along); Ma (Joan Chen) is her 48 year old widowed mother who has become pregnant, will not tell who the father is, and is thrown out of her father’s (Wil’s grandfather, Jin Wang as Wai Gung) house as a shamed woman and so goes to live with Wil; Vivian (Lynn Chen) is a dancer, a ballerina with the New York City Ballet taking time off to do modern dance and she falls in love with Wil who has little time for the relationship but it also ashamed and wants to hide her lesbianism. A fourth important character, a woman, in the margins is Wil’s grandmother, Ma’s mother, Wai Po (Guang Lan Koh): Grandma is presented as perceptive and wise in appearing to and mostly submitting to her husband but really being his staff and comfort.

The pressures: The above stereotype of the grandmother wise in the ways of the world and surviving because of her acceptance and mild manipulation of them through tact has parallels. The lesbian relationship is presented as based on a subordination (clinging) and domination pattern. Vivian sits around waiting for Wil; she is in the longing, submissive position, the one who loves more and needs more and is willing to give up her career; Wil dresses like a boy and is presented as misunderstood and busy, meaning well, but put upon and "strong." Ma wants to find Wil a husband; Wil and the grandparents want to discover who is the father of Ma’s child; if not, they want to marry her off to anyone acceptable (middle class and middle-aged and doing well enough) who will have her. Ma is as unenthusiastic about her suitors as her daughter. Ma cannot accept Wil’s gayness; Wil is uncomfortable and ashamed of her mother.

The mother and daughter have an advisor-brother type in the building, a comic version of the "helper" figure, so common in women’s films (emotion pictures too), a sexually unaggressive (brotherly), kindly, unassuming but dignified friend. Jay (Ato Essandoh) is a sable African-American man in the building to whom Wil talks periodically as the two stand on the roof and smoke. He is also seen watching soaps with mother and daughter and eating Chinese food out of square white boxes (the kind one gets from take-out Chinese restaurants).

All’s well that ends well except for one sad death—in hospital and done realistically enough. Wil and Vivian do end up dancing in public and living together; Ma almost marries again to please her father, but Wil finds a letter from the father of Ma’s child and, armed with this, disrupts the wedding and Ma ends up with a much younger man. She was ashamed of loving such a young man who is apparently "not established." So another taboo is broken here.

When last seen our two unconventional pairs of lovers are sitting together in Wil’s apartment on a ledge of some sort. They criss-cross: one of the lesbian pair and one of the older woman-young man are a now loving-enough mother-daughter.

Wu directed it and wrote the screenplay and there are a startling number of motifs typical of romantic & sentimental women’s films made by western film-makers. The letter at the end. The disrupted wedding. The central focus on women’s relationships. Emotional crying and intensities: no one is indifferent or casual to their friends or family members. Dancing sequences. Things occurring offstage which are built up towards and then are crucial—though the two young women make love in front of us. It’s very tastefully done (oblique camera angles). The men are just about all somewhat emasculated, non-violent, courteous, giving in, caring. The father’s wrath is downplayed and presented sympathetically. He after all has his "face" to save, even at the cost of his daughter’s life (twice—for the first marriage was also arranged).

There are some odd or jarring notes. For example, every once in a while we are treated to what feels like the old one-line stychomachia of early Renaissance drama when 4 women suddenly will make rather trite gossipy remarks about what’s happening. Sometimes it’s four men. This may be something typical of Chinese films: here are the villagers in chorus, half-mocking, half-teasing, bringing in the supposed sensible or accepted half-snide mores. These feel out of kilter with the pace and more complex nuances of the rest of the film.

It’s mimetic enough. Flushing is apparently a bigger "Chinatown" than Manhattan’s Chinatown (south of Canal, Mott Street, East Broadway, you can see the Brooklyn Bridge). Rego Park, Forrest Hills are still mostly middle class white though there are also lots of Asians and Indian peoples. Jamaica and Hollis are African-American. Fresh Meadows is going Asian. I’m told Long Island City has some gentrification going in since the temporary stay of MOMA. As with Maria Full of Grace we get a filmed picture of real streets and their ambiance in a suburb of New York City. Chinese people still perform match-making and we see bustling businessmen. The women dress in very bourgeois ways and play mahjong. (Though my Jewish mother and her Jewish friends play mahjong too.)

I thought the best acting performance was Joan Chen as Ma. She had that stony-face look I’ve seen often on my grandmother’s face and the faces of women of her generation who live a life where they are not allowed to follow their emotional bent. In body language, gesture, word and demands Ma takes this out on others. She tries to push her daughter in directions she was pushed. She is mortified when she has first to go out on dates. She retreats to her couch, Chinese food and soap operas.

Only at the end when her daughter helps free her, does Joan Chen’s face take on nuanced open expressions. She is actually a pretty older woman.

Vivian was played by Lynn Chen as incipiently masochistic. Will she take an offered position to dance at the Paris ballet? She hangs on Wil’s every move. Waits for Wil in playgrounds. Lynn Chen resembles Nicole Kidman—or was made up to look like Kidman. Kidman also plays this type (as in Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady). I wonder if it’s true that lesbians fall into patterns we are asked to believe heterosexuals do when they under pressure. I realize that underlying human relationships is a struggle for power and domination, but must this centrally also shape a love relationship. At any rate this is the way this lesbian love relationship was dramatized. Angela Carter (she of Nights at the Circus and The Sadeian Woman) would have been disappointed.

Wil’s part was easier. She was the cool one and kept active. Very boyish body. We are told is dynamic as a surgeon. Great with knife you see.

I really liked—and was meant to like—Jay. He was a sweetheart. His role was intended to show us how absurd racial prejudice is. The film made something of a joke of Ma’s racial prejudice. This was in line with the dismissing of the father’s destructiveness.

It’s not a great film but a comfort one, rooted in humane feeling. The characters do support one another. It’s a moving moment when the daughter and mother hug intensely in the street by a cab and then in the bus have what seems to be one of the first real conversations or honest communications of their lives. Wil tells the mother she doesn’t want the mother to come live with her any more. Ma tells Wil it sounds attractive this idea of living alone. So you see no harm done by these modern values. None of the individuals seems to lose out in any permanent way. All but one end up back in the group (including the many rejected males and the father). If you are going through a bad period in this film, you need only go to a local hairdresser, or a dance, or if really down-and-out put on the soap opera, get your box of Chinese food out of the handy fridge, sit on your couch, invite Jay in and then watch and discuss the soap with him.

A quiet witticism is how the soap stories mirror what is happening in front of us while apparently being a distraction for the characters.

Izzy appeared to like the film very very much.


Posted by: Ellen

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