Many writer-directors have taken unusual routes to their feature film debuts, but few are quite as unusual as Alice Wu’s. The young woman behind “Saving Face,” a romantic comedy about the growing bond between a scandalously-pregnant Chinese-American widow and the daughter she must suddenly live with–a surgeon who’s carefully kept her lesbianism a secret from the family but is now entering a relationship with a beautiful ballerina–did her undergraduate work not in film but in computer science, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Stanford. And then she spent years working for Microsoft in Seattle before deciding to indulge her artistic bent in a fashion that was also true to her roots. Her effort started out as a novel and morphed into a screenplay, but it always centered on a character modeled on her own mother.
“I sort of wrote this, in a way, to stave off corporate boredom,” Wu explained in a recent Dallas interview. “I’d been in my job for five years. I didn’t go to film school. My background’s in computer science, and I spent five years working in the software industry. And I’d never written a novel before, and I really wanted to try. So as I was thinking what I wanted to write about, I’d always been very close to my mom, and remembered [when I was] growing up, everyone commenting on how beautiful she was all the time. And yet I realized she’d never really lived her life. She was just turning fifty, which is not very old, but somehow I realized I had never really seen her regard her own life as one that could have a lot of promise and growth. It was like, somehow, at the point I was born, that was the cessation of her life–marriage, kids, job had all been taken care of–and now she was just going to continue living and perhaps have a lot of her hopes and dreams come through me, which I think is a very common experience with parents and children, particularly if there’s an immigrant component involved. And so it was funny to see this woman–especially because she’s so vibrant, really the funniest person I know–and just to realize she’d never been in love before. She’s about to be fifty and she’s never been in love. And I thought there’s something cosmically wrong with that.”
Wu continued, “In a lot of ways this film is really about a daughter and a mother who are both trying to be the perfect Chinese daughter. And ironically it’s the mother, who has already succeeded at this all her life, [who’s] suddenly messing up in this rather spectacular way. And that actually catalyzes the daughter’s rebellion. But it’s in that process where these two women, really by getting everything wrong, end up coming to understand each other. And maybe on some level unconsciously I was writing this because I wanted my mom to know it was okay if she totally messed up. She’s really my role model. In a lot of ways I think when people talk of coming of age, they focus on the twenties and the teens, and I actually think you can come of age at any decade of your life, and maybe we continue to do that every decade. And my mom, I think she really came into her own in her fifties. And it’s that spirit I really wanted to get across in the film. Most people that I’ve met have some secret desire or wish that they’ve never acted on, or have always held themselves back from. I wanted to show them a film where these two people by the end do reach for what they want, and maybe that would give people the hope to do that. I guess I initially wrote it because I wanted my mother to do that–and then she did!”
Wu herself decided to take a chance and go after her dream–turning the script she’d written into a film. “I decided to move to New York and try to do this,” she said. “I quit my job and gave myself five years. And if I didn’t make it at the end, I’d find myself another job.” As it turned out, it was a close call. “The financing dropped in my very last year,” Wu laughed. “I won a screenplay contest, and one of the judges was Teddy Zee, who was the president of Will Smith’s [Overbrook] production company.” Zee championed “Saving Face” at the company, and eventually called with the good word that Overbrook would be willing to “roll the dice” on the project. “The fifth anniversary hit in the middle of my shoot,” she said, and still marveled that it worked out: “Frankly, what are the odds, really? It’s Chinese, there’s a gay sub-theme, it’s partly in Mandarin. It seems like a complete longshot. I’m actually a little astonished that I’m here at all.”
Wu was also still amazed that her mother was being played by Joan Chen. “I actually wasn’t sure she was right for the part,” she said. “She just exudes glamor. I didn’t know whether it would be possible to ‘frump her up.’ [But she said], ‘I’ll go there with you.’ She found it inside herself. Like it’s an emotional thing. You’ve seen people who feel as though there’s nothing new for them to look forward to in their life, that everything has been decided, and they just look old–it doesn’t matter what age they are. And I felt she just tapped into that, so that the mother can be beautiful when you first see her, but it has to be a weary kind of beauty.”
But, Wu said, “Saving Face” doesn’t star only Chen and Michelle Krusiec as Wil, the daughter modeled after herself, but also the city where it was set and shot. “I think one of the characters is New York,” she said, “and it’s presented very romantically. I think that maybe that comes from the fact that I’ve wanted to live in New York for as long as I can remember. [But] there’s an intellectual reason for why I chose New York–which is that in a very small geographical location you have thousands of worlds, and they’re all right next to each other, and it’s a walking city, so you walk through everyone’s world to get to your own, and because people really wear their culture and their ethnicity on their sleeve there–you visually see it. That’s not true in most other cities. So with a film like this, where on the surface it would seem it’s, like, Chinese-American [or] lesbian, I actually think it’s a very universal film. And I felt like one way to sort of heighten the universality is if you set it in New York. There’s the sense that, okay, you have this whole different world like the Chinese immigrant world that’s in Flushing, but there’s constantly this reminder that when you’re looking around there’s this whole larger universe around them.”
This observation led Wu to discuss how she hopes audiences will react to the film, especially in terms of what she called “the quiet subversion of taking what is basically an old-fashioned romantic comedy, sometimes a little bit of a screwball comedy, and showing it with primarily Chinese faces and a gay subplot. I was really nervous about how the Chinese community was going to take to the film, because it’s the one I grew up in, but of course that’s the one that’s going to be your worst critic.” Coverage in the Chinese-American press, however, has proven very supportive. “I was really relieved,” she said. But she added: “The thing I secretly hope for, that seems to be happening, is that people do come up and say, ‘God, it’s just like my Jewish family,’ or ‘my Italian family.’ It makes you feel a little less lonely because now they can relate to it, too. So maybe the thesis I have, that we are basically the same when you strip away the social trappings–maybe that’s actually true.”