Last night I braved the hell of Times Square to go see Saving Face - the charming, original new romantic comedy by first-time writer/director Alice Wu - on opening night at a screening with one of the leads in attendance. I'd been wanting to see this film since I read an interview with Wu in Time Out New York. [I'm not linking it because it's behind their ridiculous pay firewall - ed.] Some of the things which Wu said about Chinese-American culture and her relationship with her mother (such as the fact that Wu said her mother always said that everything she did reflected on Chinese people everywhere) resonated with my girlfriend. At the same time, the story behind the making of the film really resonated with me, and should resonate with anyone who yearns to escape bland day jobs. Apparently, she had some boring sounding corporate job and decided to take a screenwriting course for fun. The screenplay she came up with was so good that her teacher wanted to option it. Instead, Wu was very insistent on her vision for the film so she embarked on a five year plan to turn herself into a director and Saving Face is the result.
For these reasons I planned on seeing the film anyway, so it was serendipitous when my friend Sally called and said she was going to see it with a big group that included the beautiful and winsome Lynn Chen, one of the leads. Chen said that, as with all films, the opening weekend is absolutely crucial. The film is in both New York and LA now and will be moving on to San Fransisco and San Diego (essentially anywhere that has a big Chinese population) next weekend. Good numbers for this first week are pretty much the determining factor as to whether there will be a wider release after that.
Having seen the finished product resulting from Alice Wu's Cinderella story I can say without hesitation that this isn't one of those Good Will Hunting situations where the story behind the making of the film is better than the film itself. This is legitimately a good movie - fresh, funny, richly observed, deeply felt, and with a remarkable performance by a coming-out-of-semi-retirement Joan Chen.
The plot concerns Wil, a 28-year-old Chinese-American Doctor originally from Flushing who now lives in what appears to be Brooklyn. (This is a very, very New York-centric movie so all New Yorkers should support it, but it has universal themes that anyone could relate to at the same time.) Wil is a lesbian but still goes to Flushing every weekend to go to dances where she meets generally awful Chinese guys whom her mom, played by Joan Chen, sets her up with. At one of the dances she meets Vivian, (the part played by my friend's cousin's wife, got that?) another girl originally from Flushing, and the proverbial sparks fly. The two start a torrid affair, but the closeted Wil refuses to engage in any PDAs or introduce her new girlfriend to her mother. At this point the film would seem to have the makings of no more than a fairly typical ethnic comedy or gay coming-of-age story, but what moves this film beyond those genres is everything having to do with the mother character.
It turns out that she's pregnant, and she won't even say who the father is! Grandpa kicks her out of the house and she shows up on Wil's doorstep. From that point on, it's a fascinating ride watching the two women not communicate and both live in terror of their own desires and feelings. This is all shown with a real eye for character and detail. It's not one of those ethnic comedies with broad stereotypes, but one in which the cultural milieu is shown interacting with individual characters in a subtle way. The movie's also really, really funny. Much of the comic material is kind of broad, but the actors handle it with real deftness and sensitivity. Joan Chen is simply amazing. She indelibly creates a woman who is fierce, independent, disagreeable, crazy, and still somehow sympathetic with her performance.
This film should be of special interest to anyone who has the slightest interest in Chinese American culture, New York City, or indie-film-type romantic comedies. Go see it and make sure that more people have a chance to. What else are you gonna do? See Star Wars twice, you geek?
UPDATE: I'm so incredibly excited because who else has e-mailed me but Saving Face writer/director Alice Wu herself!! She sent me a gracious, warm note thanking me for my post and saying how much she believes in blogs being an important tool in helping films like hers to build an audience. She says maybe she feels this way because she has "geek roots". I just looked on the "production notes" portion of the official site for Saving Face and I see that she has a Bachelor's and Masters in Computer Science from Standford. Geek roots indeed!