Interview with Alice Wu and Joan Chen of “Saving Face”

Wu and Chen with Saving Face co-stars Lynn Chen (left) and Michelle Krusiec

Alice Wu, the out lesbian writer/director, is so enthusiastic about her debut film, Saving Face, that it’s hard not to share in her excitement. How can you blame her? An official selection of both the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, Saving Face is about to open in select cities nationally, introducing her creation to an even larger audience.

The story of mother and daughter, Ma (Joan Chen) and Wil (Michelle Krusiec), and the secrets that tear them apart (Wil is a lesbian and widowed Ma is pregnant by an unnamed father) as well as keep them together. At turns sad and sweet and funny, Saving Face is a wonderful introduction to a promising filmmaker. I spoke with Ms. Wu and Ms. Chen at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. Saving Face is not only the title, but one of the central themes of the movie. Can you say something about what the cultural implications are of “saving face”?
Alice Wu: Often I think of it as more of an Asian notion, although the concept of it is very universal across many cultures. The way I understood it, growing up is that there is this sense that what you present to the world may not be who you are inside, but there is a responsibility when you come from an immigrant community–even though I was born in the states, my parents were immigrants–so there was this sense of wanting to be the perfect citizen. On some level I’m representing all Chinese people to Americans, even though, technically, I’m an American. So, if you do anything to shame yourself, you’re not just shaming yourself, your shaming an entire community. Also, in terms of the film, Wil is a reconstructive surgeon, who specializes in faces, and her mother works as an aesthetician at a salon, giving facials. There is that double entendre.

AE: There are other recurring themes in the movie, including food as a means of demonstrating love.
AW: You can sort of see it in the dialogue, too, I think that most people don’t just come right out and say what they want or need. I get frustrated sometimes when I’m watching films and all the characters are speaking without sub-text. I feel condescended to. I think that with these characters in particular, especially the mother and the daughter, they both clearly have wants and needs that they’re not expressing to each other. But you never doubt that they love each other. You can really see it with the mom, with the food she prepares, or even the Chinese community at those (social) dances. One of the things that I loved was that even though the music was wonderful and the food was so good even though there is all this gossiping. That’s just part of the fun and there is a warmth and affection there.
Joan Chen: Recently China has become rich, relatively speaking, but in the past hundred years, food was kind of scarce. So, to bring out food on the table is truly a happy thing. Every opportunity, if you want to celebrate or if there is a funeral, you bring food out.
AW: You never get Chinese people together and not have food be something that is available. I’m probably going to get skewered for this, but also, being gay, lesbian pot-lucks can be the worst food ever (laughs).
JC: (Laughing) Why is that?
AW: I think it’s the vegetarianism and the vegans (laughs).
JC: Chinese vegetarian dishes are very good.
AW: If I want a good meal, I don’t call up all my lesbian friends (laughs), I definitely call up all my Chinese friends. Of course, there is an important overlap with Asian lesbians, because you get both.
JC: You mean you get food and sex (all laugh).

AE: I get the sense that part of saving face for a daughter is, if not marrying and starting a family, to at least have respectable professions such as Wil being a doctor and Vivian being a dancer. Do filmmaker and actress also qualify?
AW: No (laughs). Now, they’re very proud.
JC: Actually, in Chinese culture, movie stars can make a lot of money in Taiwan and Hong Kong. All these really rich men would love to have mistresses who are movie stars, but they would never marry them. It’s not respectable.
AW: We should be clear that with that said, things are changing within the Asian-American community. But what Joan said is totally true. There is this bias that you want your kid to be–it used to be doctor or lawyer–now I think they want them to run their own company and be an entrepreneur. I think it has something to do with affluence. When you’re a recent immigrant, there is a sense that you need to find a respectable profession so that you can take care of your parents. I got my degrees in Computer Science. I spent years in software. I didn’t go to film school. This is sort of my funding my own little dream to learn about film to try to get this done. But the reality is that I would never have dreamed of majoring in English or film when I was in college. Not that my parents would have forbidden me to do it, I just would have never thought to ask.
JC: I think that the Arts as a profession are considered selfish. You are doing it for self-expression, because you love to do it.

AE: What about the concept of making art to better other people’s lives?
JC: It’s not your family’s immediate needs.
AW: I don’t think Chinese-American parents are going around saying, “I hope they make a film (to better the world).” In a lot of ways I think art is considered a luxury, at least in the communities I grew up in. As there is more affluence in those communities, those luxuries are more possible. So now, parents are coming up to me and say that their kids want to be filmmakers. Wow! When did that happen? That’s excellent that their parents are so supportive. But I think it’s out of economic necessity. If you’ve struggled all your life so that your kids can go to college, I understand why they think that they don’t want their kids to go through the same struggle that they went through. You want their life to be easier. What if the famine comes? What if this or that comes? The artists are the first ones chucked out the door (laughs). You don’t want that to happen to your kids. I don’t think this is a selfish act on the part of the parents.
JC: It’s better for the children, better for the family