Written by Ren Jender as part of our theme week on Asian Womanhood in Pop Culture.
During writer-director Alice Wu’s 2004 romantic comedy Saving Face one of the main women characters goes into a video store and looks at the “Chinese” shelf of DVDs: it’s The Joy Luck Club plus a whole lot of porn. In spite of East Asians making up an increasing part of the international film market (and American films increasing reliance on the rest of the world to make money at the box office), we still have hardly any mainstream films starring actresses of East Asian ancestry (or of any other Asian ancestry). Rinko Kinkuchi is a Japanese actress who has had success in Babel, Pacific Rim and most recently Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and Lucy Liu has an established career, but we see relatively few Asian women stars in American films–and never more than one at a time.
Saving Face, which focuses on three Chinese American women (all of whom are also played by Chinese American actresses), came during what was, especially compared to more recent releases, a wave of films centered on people of color and their immigrant families (Bend It Like Beckham, The Namesake) along with some rom-com fluff which featured queer protagonists (Imagine Me and You and a litany of forgettable movies on the LGBT film festival circuit). Like Chutney Popcorn, Saving Face is one of the few films focused on queer people of color and their families. Having those two elements together might seem like a modest achievement, but Pariah is one of the only recent films that also includes both. Mainstream movie makers apparently think queer people of color don’t have families, but instead are deposited as eggs in a sandy, warm spot by a pond until they hatch and make their way, independently, into the world.[caption id="attachment_19959" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Michelle Krusiec as Wil[/caption]
The characters of Saving Face don’t so much subvert stereotypes as present another side to them. Wil (short for Wilhelmina, played by Michelle Krusiec) is a high-achieving second-generation New York City surgical resident–who is also queer. Wil’s mother, Hwei-Lan Gao–mostly referred to as “Ma” (played by Joan Chen)–is the scolding, guilt-inducing first-generation immigrant, but also stunningly beautiful, and, at 48, pregnant and single. Wil’s girlfriend Vivian (Lynn Chen) has a career as a ballerina which, because it’s part of the classical arts, her doctor father approves of–but what she really loves is modern dance.
Even though Wil is the main character, she’s the least interesting of the three, though, refreshingly, she is one of the few women protagonists in film who wears pants and men’s cut shirts and jerseys throughout, with no “makeover” scene. We all know women, of every sexual orientation, who wear those clothes every day, but actresses in movies and TV seem to sport skirts and cleavage for every occasion. Wil also wears her long hair in a ponytail, not an unusual look for a busy medical resident, but one not usually seen on women main characters in movies even those doing jobs or activities (like fighting bad guys) that make loose, long hair impractical.
When Wil’s grandparents find out her long-widowed mother is pregnant they throw her out of their house in Flushing, Queens. The Chinese American community there also ostracize her, so, in a sitcom-like scenario she comes to live with Wil. As in most American films (Obvious Child is one of the few exceptions), even though the pregnancy is unplanned and disrupts her living situation and social standing, no one ever offers abortion as a solution, though it’s a procedure one out of three American women will have during her reproductive lifetime.
“Ma” is sad and shaken, but not enough to keep her from redecorating the apartment with a lot of red as well as blaring Chinese devotional music while she meditates. Women characters who are almost 50 hardly ever get this much complexity and screen time but giving it to a working-class (her job is at a hair salon), first-generation immigrant who is also sexy and vulnerable is unheard of. Joan Chen is so good in the role, even the queer supremacist in me wishes the film were more about her than her comparatively dull daughter.[caption id="attachment_19958" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Lynn Chen as Vivian[/caption]
Gorgeous, flirty Vivian is an Asian American woman we don’t often see in films, a queer, confident femme. She tells Wil she’d like to meet her mother, something that Wil at first says, will never happen. But Vivian convinces her, “Just tell her I’m a friend. A nice Chinese girl….I’ll fake it.”
We see Wu teasing Chinese American stereotypes throughout the film. When her mother is about to go an a date, trying to find a husband before the baby is born, Wil tells her to change out of the matronly black dress she’s wearing. Wil holds up another of her mother’s dresses, but her mother dismisses it, saying “Chinese people cannot wear yellow.” When Wil gives her mother a questioning look she says (in English), “On sale.” We also see anti-Black sentiment isn’t confined to white people with some of the remarks Wil’s mother makes about Wil’s Black neighbor Jay (Ato Essandoh)–and with this character we also see that an Asian-American screenwriter can use Black characters as tokens the same way white screenwriters do.[caption id="attachment_19964" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Joan Chen as “Ma”[/caption]
In a lot of ways the film feels like it takes place earlier than just a little over a decade ago and not just because of its landline telephones. Eleven years of queer rights legislation and legal marriage in parts of the US (now a reality in a majority of states) make queer people a lot less likely to be closeted to their own immediate families (even conservative, immigrant ones), so Wil’s behavior around her mother seems as alien to us as the time before (most) everyone had a smartphone. Later we find out that Wil isn’t closeted, that her mother knows, but is in denial. In contrast, Vivian’s mother, from the same first-generation immigrant community (but also somewhat ostracized because she’s divorced) knows that her daughter is dating Wil and doesn’t have a problem with it. She casually leaves a message on the answering machine–which the couple hear while they have sex, “Did Wil show up? Thought you may wanna talk after she leaves. Oh, maybe she’s still there? OK. Bye.”
Of course in the template for this kind of film even the most entrenched homophobia never lasts long. Nothing serious ever does: when a minor character dies, the mourning is so short-lived I expected someone to tell us the death had been a misunderstanding. The ending of Saving Face reminded me of Big Eden from 2000 where the denizens of a small town in the Montana all gather around an interracial male couple slow-dancing at the end and no one looks at them with anything less than benevolence–when at least some of these folks would probably be Ted Cruz supporters. But instant queer acceptance in small, sheltered communities might not be any more unlikely than a world where American movie executives continue to ignore the people who make up more and more of their audience.