July 01, 2005

Saving Face

Directed by Alice Wu Starring Joan Chen and Michelle Krusiec

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Simply put, Alice Wu’s debut feature Saving Face is The Wedding Banquet meets Eat Drink Man Woman meets Kissing Jessica Stein. The writer/director liberally plagiarizes Ang Lee’s films, appropriating elements from inane jokes about stinky tofu to the climactic surprise. Her effort also inherits essential problems of Lee’s: It’s basically an Asian film made for a non-Asian audience, and a lesbian film made for a heterosexual audience. More so than Lee, Wu panders to the dominant ethnic and cultural myths and exoticisms in the western world that only serve to compartmentalize already disenfranchised minorities further into convenient and marginalized fringe segments of society.

The film features an onslaught of lazy stereotypes that are practically caricatures, including uptight overachieving surgeon Wil (Michelle Krusiec), her no-speak-English beautician mother (Joan Chen), Wil’s tai-chi-practising traditionalist grandfather (Jin Wang), and numerous charmless and outwardly asexual Asian men prowling the dating circuit. At the Flushing Chinese socials which she reluctantly but dutifully attends, closeted Wil reacquaints with childhood friend Vivian (Lynn Chen) and a romance ensues. Meanwhile Wil’s widowed mother inopportunely moves in with her when a mysterious pregnancy prompts grandpa to throw her out on the street.

What follows is actually sweet and almost poignant considering that the characters are one-dimensional. But despite its central theme of tolerance, the film’s generic ethnic portrayals are as troublesome as minstrel. The mother’s excursion into a video store in one scene – impeded by the language barrier, she asks for Chinese-language movies but instead rents Asian porn – is reminiscent of Alex Borstein’s Bunny Swan skits on MADtv, except that here it’s wholly sincere rather than farcical. And unlike Margaret Cho’s impersonation of her mother, the film doesn’t convey these grotesque caricatures with affection. A couple of Do the Right Thing-esque tangents about clashes between Asians and blacks almost makes Saving Face interesting, but Wu again resorts to stereotypes.

The material seems behind the times by a decade as Wu appears somewhat detached from Asian circles. Despite the authentic bilingual dialogue and a bubble-tea sighting, the film’s characters watch Chinese soap operas as opposed to Korean ones. Many may still find Saving Face enjoyable, as there has always been a serious lack of remotely identifiable Asian representation in western media aside from TV news anchors. But as films such as Better Luck Tomorrow and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle gradually challenge perceptions of the Asian-American identity, ones like Saving Face should really be obsolete.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.