In the opening scene of Saving Face, a brilliant Chinese-American surgeon named Wilhelmina is wearing a mask. It’s one of those pore-opening concoctions designed to maintain eternal youth'and it’s also the first in a series of metaphors and plot devices with all the subtlety of a neon sledgehammer in writer-director Alice Wu’s nonetheless charming romantic comedy, which finds it much easier to bridge difficult cultural divides cleverly than to tweak storytelling convention.
Behind the mask, Wilhemina (Michelle Krusiec)'Wil for short'is a lesbian, but only her close friends know it. Every Friday, the Manhattanite visits her mother and grandparents at a community party back home in Flushing, where they try to set her up with nice Asian guys. Two developments quickly break her routine: Her 48-year-old mother (Joan Chen) moves in with her after becoming pregnant by an unknown paramour, and Wil meets cute with Vivian (the stunning Lynn Chen), a ballerina and the daughter of Wil’s boss at the hospital.
Ma’s pregnancy and the Sapphic romance decorously alternate screen time throughout Wu’s charming script, with scenes and dialogue showing none of the studied clumsiness of your average indie romance. In fact, there are times when Saving Face isn’t clumsy enough: Our heroes have their first kiss after dancer Vivian teaches Wil how to fall gracefully, possibly the least subtle screen metaphor for first love ever created. Wu can’t resist telegraphing her intentions in this Sundance 2005 entry with all the trappings of Hollywood, such as its superb production values, excellent performances and an overwritten screenplay. From the generational stereotypes to the packages of Chinese herbs that come to symbolize secrets, everything seems completely familiar, even as Wu immerses us in a subculture that gets little love in mainstream cinema'and that was probably her intention all along.
A lipstick lesbian relationship is predictably taboo among the traditional Chinese of Flushing, but it never seems like it would be an apocalyptic scandal, even to fearful Wil. After all, she’s a successful doctor, and her mom’s judging friends work in a salon. There’s not much at stake besides the standard romantic-comedy obstacles and entanglements; all the really interesting trouble comes from Ma’s surprising pregnancy and her haphazard dating efforts to find a father for the baby, and thereby save face with her own stern father. But Wu frequently digs at the melodrama with an absurd touch, particularly when she juxtaposes a clever series of sad phone messages against Ma eating chicken and watching soap operas with Wil’s neighbor.
Wu proves to be an impressive director of actors as well. Joan Chen, the sometime director who follows nobody’s idea of a conventional career path, is predictably strong as a woman straining against both sides of her nature, while Krusiec and Lynn Chen produce what should be career-making performances in complex roles. Wu changes tones from comedy to drama with little prelude, and both actors handle it splendidly; their tender scenes are utterly engrossing, and I can’t wait for them both to cash in on this with underwritten, high-paying parts in Hollywood crap over the next few years.
There’s very little that’s “significant” about Saving Face, but that’s actually part of its charm. Wu comfortably presides over a series of minor dramas straining against her characters’ everyday monotony, all stretched across a romantic-comedy framework tweaked just so. We eventually learn the clever identity of Ma’s babydaddy (I guessed it all along, but I was in the vast minority), and Wu even tacks on a postscript megahappy ending. By that point, we’re ready to believe everything really will turn out just fine.