Alice Wu is best known for writing and directing The Half of It; Netflix’s lesbian retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac. On the surface she looks like an overnight success, coming out of nowhere and making a film for the world’s biggest streaming platform. But Wu is the creative force behind another iconic lesbian romcom: Saving Face. And though there’s a 15 year gap between the two films, they share a number of qualities. Both are romantic comedies. Both have an Asian-American lead. And both explore complicated parental relationships.
Saving Face tells the story of Wil Pang, a promising young surgeon struggling to balance her life as a lesbian against the expectations of her family and community. Her mother Gao drags Wil along to a party in the hope of setting her up with a friend’s son. There’s just one problem: Wil is a lesbian. And, instead of the obnoxious corporate guy Gao has in mind, she’s drawn to Vivian – a free-spirited ballerina.
Wil and Vivian fall for each other. Fast. But with a demanding surgical career, overwhelming family drama, and her semi-closeted status to contend with, Wil finds sustaining a relationship much harder than falling in love.
Both young women struggle against the weight of parental expectations. Wil’s family expect her to marry and have children. Although modern dance is Vivian’s passion, her father expects her to choose the more prestigious path of ballet. But Saving Face subverts the strict Asian parent stereotype – and this is what makes the film truly outstanding. Pregnant and unmarried, Gao is cast out of her family home with nobody to turn to except Wil. And instead of mother trying to marry off daughter, it’s Wil who plays matchmaker in the hope of saving Gao the shame attached to single mothers – and getting her apartment back.
For much of the film, Gao is in denial. She refuses to acknowledge her pregnancy, or make plans for the baby. She knows that Wil is a lesbian, having walked in on her with a previous girlfriend. But continues to try and set her daughter up with men. Caught between a girlfriend looking for commitment and a mother who won’t recognise their love, Wil faces a social dilemma that will be familiar to many a lesbian viewer.
When it first came out in 2004, Saving Face was a gamechanger for both Asian-American and lesbian representation on screen. Not since the Joy Luck Club, released eleven years previously, had there been a mainstream film centred around Chinese-American community. While Wu is clear that Saving Face isn’t based on her own life, she has stated that one of her goals with this film was to give positive representation to her mother.
The mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of Saving Face. It also explains the 15 year gap in Wu’s film career. After a couple of abortive projects in the 2000s, Wu left the industry to take care of her sick mother. Fortunately, Wu’s mom recovered. And she then began working on The Half of It.
With her second film being met with near universal acclaim, Wu is finally getting the recognition she deserves. But Saving Face deserves to be celebrated too. After all, it’s a tremendous debut – funny, ironic, and full of heart. Visually, it’s a beautiful film. There are some breath-taking shots of the New York skyline at sunset, witnessed during Wil’s commute. The bridges, boats, and water feel more a part of this story as the hustle and bustle of city life.
Saving Face is also a movie with strong lesbian sensibilities. How her friends and family can remain ignorant of her sexuality when Wil shows up to the party rocking a shirt from menswear and a white vest underneath is a mystery. There’s even passionate, tender make-up sex – a scene that unfolds while Cat Power sings a ballad. It doesn’t really get much gayer. For all these reasons and more, you should watch it.