Saving Face, an official selection of this year's Sundance Film Festival making its Boise premiere at the Flicks this Friday, is the debut feature film from writer and director Alice Wu that follows the lives of a widowed mother and her daughter as both struggle to maintain a balance between living life the way their traditional culture dictates they should and being true to their own desires.
The main character is Wil, a young New York woman whose life seems to be one big contradiction. Determined to break free of the tightly bound Chinese-American community in Flushing, Queens, Wil has an apartment of her own located close to the inner-city hospital where she puts in long hours as a resident surgeon. Every Friday night, Wil takes the subway back to Queens to participate in the weekly social gathering and dance, thrown and attended by the very members of the tradition-bound Chinese she seems so determined to remain independent of. To make matters worse, her mother seems to have a new blind date set up for her at each and every dance. Each doomed prospect is another eligible young Chinese man, and Wil quickly and summarily shakes one after the other off. Her reluctance to give these prospects a chance is not because she is so determined to escape her tradition and people, but because Wil instead finds herself attracted to a woman, a professional ballet dancer named Vivian.
The film establishes the two separate worlds Wil inhabits, indicating that despite all her attempts and steps towards true independence, she is still intent on keeping up appearances as a dutiful and respectful daughter. Complications arise, however, when Ma herself turns up on Wil's doorstep pregnant and refusing to reveal the identity of the father. Ma, having thoroughly disgraced her father, is forced to find a suitable husband to be a father to the child-it is now Wil's turn to try and set her mother up with eligible bachelors from their community. Add to this Wil's budding relationship with Vivian, a relationship troubled due to Wil's determination to keep it hidden from everyone and Vivian's possible chance at landing a four-year gig with the Paris Opera Ballet, and it is only a matter of time until Wil is forced to choose between staying true to the customs and cultural codes of her community, or making a stand and being true to herself instead.
As one of the major themes of the film, both mother and daughter try desperately to live up to others' expectations without causing them to "lose face" through any scandalous behavior. Ma disgraces and disgusts her father by getting pregnant at her age and in her unmarried state, and to appease him she attempts to find a suitable husband and father. Likewise, Wil disgraces her mother when Ma discovers her homosexuality and suffers through each week's new blind date as a gesture of obedience and apology to her. It is only when each woman decides to take a chance at what they truly desire in defiance of what all others might think that they not only finally have a chance at true happiness, but they also manage to make a connection they have always needed: to each other.
Michelle Krusiec is very good as Wil, demonstrating determined independence while at work or with Vivian, and reluctant acquiescence and shame when unable to openly avow her love for Vivian, or be entirely honest to Ma. As the very pretty and charming Vivian, Lynn Chen has the least developed role of the leads, but still manages to come off as appealing, lovable and very believable in her confusion at Wil's wavering feelings towards their relationship. The major standout, though, is Joan Chen, who plays Ma as very firm and traditional when dealing with Wil, yet quite vulnerable when going through her own situation. There is one remarkable moment when Wil is helping Ma select a dress and hairstyle for the first of her blind dates, and Chen allows us to see how truly frightened and hopeless Ma feels. When she emerges from the locked door moments later wearing a low cut dress and with a sexy hairstyle, she looks stunning, and since we know on the inside she is just another frightened little girl on a first date, it makes her seem even more beautiful.
Saving Face is a quiet, gentle comedy that relies on character and heartfelt emotion, and is consistently funny, surprisingly touching and thoroughly enjoyable. By not striving to be anything special, it manages to be exactly that, and may be the perfect antidote to the loud, special effects-driven blockbusters that seem to be crowding every other screen.