At first glance writer-director Alice Wu’s debut feature might seem little more than another entry in the sugar-sweet ethnic comedy genre that got such a boost from the unexpected success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But along the way “Saving Face” adds some ingredients to the mix that bring an agreeably tart aftertaste to a generally fluffy confection. The occasional dark shadows are what make the story about a Chinese-American mother and daughter who both violate the norms of their traditional society by searching for love in unusual places (growing closer to one another in the process) more than just an ordinary feel-good sitcom; and though it remains fundamentally a warmhearted crowd-pleaser, the dash of piquancy keeps it from becoming cloying.
Wil Pang (Michelle Krusiec) is a surgeon working at a hospital in Manhattan under a stern, demanding department head. Her widowed mother (Joan Chen) drags her to the weekly dances in their Flushing neighborhood hoping to link her up with an eligible Chinese-American bachelor. What mom doesn’t know is that Wil is gay, and that she hesitantly enters a relationship with beautiful ballet dancer Vivian (Lynn Chen)–a coupling made difficult not only by Wil’s desire to keep her private life secret but because Vivian is the daughter of her boss. The doctor’s problems suddenly seem small, however, when Ma appears at her apartment–thrown out by Grandpa Wai Gung (Jin Wang), who’s distraught over the fact that’s she’s not only gotten pregnant, disgracing the family, but is compounding the offence by refusing to reveal the father’s name. Now saddled with her mother as a companion, Wil’s ability to spend time with Vivian grows more and more limited, threatening their romance–especially when she becomes a matchmaker for her mom, setting up a series of dates that turn out to be a string of comic disasters. But the complications, you may be sure, don’t stand in the way of an ultimately happy ending for both women, who in the process of getting to know each other develop a closeness and understanding they’d never had before.
The three leading characters in “Saving Face” are likable enough, though only Joan Chen, who convincingly sheds her glamorous persona in the early reels to play a straightlaced, controlled Chinese mother and then blossoms into an extraordinarily liberated (and extraordinarily beautiful) woman in the latter stages, truly stands out. (Her deadpan delivery of the dialogue during the time she spends in Wil’s apartment, a censorious and demanding guest, is a joy, and she even gives the more ordinary bits of business–like her devotion to television soap operas–a special kick.) Krusiec gives a sound performance, but she mostly plays straight man as Ma’s gay daughter, and with Chen as the other side of the equation, she’s at a distinct disadvantage. Lynn Chen, meanwhile, couldn’t be improved on in terms of appearance–she’s lithe and incredibly attractive. But she’s also a trifle stiff, sometimes seeming to pose rather than act. So while the lesbian relationship never really engages, the mother-daughter story does, even though the ultimate revelation of the identity of Ma’s lover strains credulity (and the disrupted wedding-scene site is drawn too obviously out of a screenwriting textbook). Where the film gets a good deal of its charm is from the supporting cast. Wang is fine as the rigorous paterfamilias, but even better are Guang Lan Koh as his long-suffering but strong-willed wife (she has what amounts to a wonderful cadenza in a hospital scene); Nathanael Geng as the diffident Mr. Cho, who’s always loved Ma from afar; Ato Essandoh as Wil’s neighbor Jay; and Mao Zhao as Old Yu, who provides herbal remedies for any and all ills. The scenes in the Flushing Chinese community, in particular, benefit from a small army of colorful character actors who may sometimes step over the bounds of stereotyping but are nonetheless winning and funny (as are most of Ma’s suitors). It’s here, as well in the scenes between Wil and Ma, that Wu’s unhurried, affectionate helming brings the biggest rewards. And though this is a modestly budgeted project, it uses its New York locations well.
It’s a pity that right at the close “Saving Face” chooses to go for reconciliation whole-hog. The final scene simply sweeps aside all the problems that have gone before, suggesting that rifts caused by bigotry of every sort can be rectified by nothing more than a smile–and a baby for everyone to ooh and ah over. It’s an overly facile finale to a film that, despite its lighthearted manner, had earlier demonstrated that in the real world things are a lot more complicated than that. But even that slip can’t cancel out the tangy charm of much of what’s preceded.