Review of “Saving Face”

Wil (Michelle Krusiec)

This week at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, audiences were witness to a small but critical step forward in American cinema: the U.S. premiere of Saving Face, the first American theatrical release featuring an Asian American lesbian couple.

It’s also a funny and touching romantic comedy dealing with universal themes that should provide broad appeal when it opens in theaters in May.

Out lesbian director Alice Wu‘s first feature film, Saving Face is about the relationship between 28-year-old closeted lesbian surgeon Wilhelmina “Wil” Pang (Michelle Krusiec) and her mother Ma (Joan Chen), a 48-year-old widow who only speaks Mandarin and socializes solely with other members of the Chinese American community in Flushing, New York.

Wil (Michelle Krusiec)

The movie explores the relationship between mother and daughter when Ma unexpectedly turns up on Wil’s Manhattan doorstep pregnant, just as Wil is falling in love with a ballerina, Vivian (Lynn Chen).

Vivan (Lynn Chen)

Vivian becomes frustrated with Wil’s unwillingness to be open about their relationship (asking “is this just an illicit affair?”), while Ma pressures Wil to find a boyfriend, even as she copes with her own ostracization from her community. Changing circumstances finally force Ma and Wil to choose between following their hearts and conforming to social pressure, with comic and poignant results.

The film’s overarching theme is the cost and benefit of personal freedom, and Wu effectively (and fairly subtly) intertwines Wil and Ma’s storylines in order to highlight their similarities.

Wu also succeeds in using Wil’s relationship with Vivian as an illustration of Wil’s larger struggle, while at the same time making the relationship raw and real enough that it avoids being reduced to only a metaphor.

Wil and Vivian’s relationship is also refreshingly stereotype-free, and beautifully and realistically portrayed by Krusiec and Chen, who have good chemistry. Although lesbian viewers are likely to wish there was a little more time devoted to its development, this is easily one of the better lesbian relationships we’ve seen on the big screen in years.

Saving Face has its flaws, most notably a slightly over-the-top, unrealistically happy ending that I won’t spoil by elaborating on. I’m all for happy endings — especially in lesbian films, where they are often few and far between — but there were just a few scenes at the end of Saving Face that strained credibility to the point that you were pulled out of the movie, thinking “that would never happen.”