Wil (Michelle Krusiec) is a modern young american woman in her late twenties. Her work as a surgeon in a clinic is highly regarded. Everything would be fine, if she only had a husband, or at least a boyfriend - or so her mother Hwei-Lan (Joan Chen) thinks. She comes from a very traditional chinese family and lives with her parents, since Wil's father died fifteen years ago. Hwei-Lan constantly tries to set Wil up with eligible chinese men, but her daughter likes none of them. You see, Wil has a secret: she is a lesbian, and she just found her dream girl. And then the young woman finds out, that her mother also has something kept from her family: she is pregnant by a man she won't name. Her self-righteous and extremely conservative father immediatley throws Hwei-Lan out of his house, and so Wil suddenly has to take her mother in.
Wil's life becomes very complicated and nerve-racking all of a sudden: She can't bring her friend home, for mother shall not know of her sexual preferences. This girl, the beautiful ballerina Vivian (Lynn Chen) gets more and more frustrated with their relationship, because Wil is reluctant to show herself with her lover in the public. And the fact that Vivian is the daughter of Wil's boss makes this mess even more complicated...
The debut movie of director Alice Wu (who also wrote the script) draws a very convincing picture of asian americans. The struggle between cultural identity and heritage and the modern life in the USA rings true and is depicted with affection and a lot of humor. Wil is thoroughly americanized, so it seems, but she can't shake off the expectations of her traditional family. Hwei-Lan on the other hand, who came with her parents to America, is steeped deeply in the traditonal chinese family values, but breaks them by having an affair and getting (unintentionally) pregnant. These two women are the core of the movie and the actresses are fully up to their task. Michelle Krusiec is enchanting (and terribly cute) as the self-confident young doctor who becomes quiet awkward when confronted with the emotional problems of her mother or - even more so - her own relationship with Vivian and her demands. And Joan Chen excels in the role of a woman who is ripped out of her quiet life and is confronted with the sin of having a child out of wedlock and at the same time having to accept that her daughter is a lesbian. Two very strong and dominant characters that overshadow Lynn Chen a bit, but that's not her fault. The dynamic between mother and daughter is much more crucial for the movie.
I have seen not enough movies with Joan Chen, who made herself rare in the last years, but I just a couple of weeks ago had a lot of fun watching WHAT'S COOKING (2000) by Gurinder Chadha. In that movie Joan also plays a "normal" asian woman and mother who has to balance traditional and modern values. Quite different from the fighters, femme fatales and villainesses Hollywood has given her too often - even though i enjoyed movies like SALUTE TO THE JUGGER (with Rutger Hauer, one of my heroes). Michelle Krusiec was a new face for me, but I hope to see a lot more of her – and not only because of her looks... I'm quite excited to read that she will be co-starring with the great Michelle Yeoh in her next film, the drama FAR NORTH.
SAVING FACE is a funny and touching movie with a big heart and I enjoyed it very much. Let me tell you my favorite scene to finish this off: Hwei-Lan explores her new neighborhood and goes to a video store. After asking for asian movies she is referred to a small board where she only finds THE LAST EMPEROR (a film Joan Chen starred in) and porn flix with Asia Carrera. In the next scene we see the slightly flabbergasted Hwan-Lei watching the porn movie and then you hear a male voice from her telly shouting "Who's your asian daddy?"
I found myself rolling on the floor.