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Film Review: Saving Face (2004, US)

Saving Face 2004

This is my first review since attempting to “Broaden my Horizons” and selecting Asian Gay and Lesbian Films as my category of choice.

This charming and gentle family drama first screened in Canada at the Toronto Film Festival in 2004. I call this a family drama and not a “gay movie” because that’s exactly what it is. It is one of the increasingly accessible breed of movies that tries to break away from the originality-destroying, art-as-product concept of “demographics”.

It’s a film where the gay aspect is central and crucial to the storyline yet neither belabours the issue to the point of preaching nor waters it down for the benefit of the right-wing American audiences, making this a true mainstream film without most of the compromises associated with them.

The main plot is so wonderfully involved that the fact of there being a gay relationship thrown in just adds to the fun. It’s one aspect among a number of interesting twists that keep this gentle and believable drama floating along with humour and verve, without the common mistakes of falling into farce or slapstick or becoming so hopelessly bogged down in emotion that you have to stop watching it half way through.

The plot hinges around a successful doctor who has been too busy for relationships for some time. She knows she’s gay and doesn’t appear to be in denial or have any issues with it per se, but it’s one of those things that she tends to suppress as an inconvenience that gets in the way of her all important career more than, say, a straight relationship would.

Michelle Krusiec as Wil

Moreover, her mother, who caught her “in the act” some undisclosed time ago knows she’s gay but has pushed it under the table in the hope that it might just go away. And to help it do so, her mother drags her along to a terrible series of dating evenings to try and get her hitched to someone, anyone, so long as they’re male.

Joan Chen

Things change when she meets a dancer, Vivian who she’d seen at one of those evenings. They hit it off, only to find that Wil’s busy schedule and continued “protecting” of her mother from the truth becomes a strain on their otherwise quite happy relationship.

The dancer and the dance - Vivian

Things start to disintegrate as Wil’s mother reveals a shocking secret, Vivian’s own career ideas start to take shape and Wil’s family suffers a tragic loss.

To be frank, I’ve never been a fan of family dramas, they tend to be a bit sappy and predictable. This one, though, has just enough meldrama and elements of surprise to bring a new, spicy twist to an old recipe of hope, disappointment, loss and personal fulfillment while -and I’m feeling a bit awkward writing this cliché- showing that lesbians are no different than anyone else. It’s so naturally woven into the fabric of the story that I completely forgot I was watching a film that triggered a ridiculous amount of controversy when it first showed!

I feel it is such a shame to see the film pigeonholed by large distribution chains into small art-house theatres and gay and lesbian “friendly” venues just because of its “lesbian-interest” moniker.

A big thumbs up recommendation for this one!

Film Trivia:

It includes the seemingly ageless definition of gorgeousness herself, Joan Chen (Those who don’t follow Asian cinema may recognise her from the 1980s TV series, Twin Peaks! How’s that for ageless?) Looking so young that it’s almost as improbable her being Wil’s mother as Wil being a surgeon.

Wil and Vivian’s first kiss on the screen was the first time they (Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen) kissed in real life, since there was no time for rehearsals. * It is not disclosed whether or not it was the first time they had ever kissed another woman…

The film was directed by Alice Wu, a Standford University BSc and MSc in Computer Science Graduate who went on to work at Microsoft in their multimedia division on a product called Cinemania, dispite wanting to be a film maker.

She started attending screenwriting classes while at Microsoft before deciding to leave and turn the semi-biographical book she had been writing about her own coming to terms with being gay in the Chinese community, into a film.

She fought long and hard to get the movie cast the way she wanted it, with Hollywood pressing her to cast it as a straight film, oh… and while she was at it, why don’t they just replace the Asians with nice, decent upstanding white people. Her stubborness gene kicked in, and refusing to budge she looked for another production company and found Wil Smith’s production company who were willing to cast it no questions asked the way she wanted it: Asians, lesbians and all!

Thus, another minor landmark was made: this was the first, big buget, All-Asian Hollywood film since the Joy Luck Club!

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