2022 may turn out to be a banner year for queer cinema. Not for melodramatic period dramas starring Harry Styles, but for films that celebrate joy and the pleasure of community. Bros, the first gay romcom from a major studio, hit theaters last week. Earlier this year, Fire Island was lauded for its portrayal of queer Asian American identity (as well as being hilarious). While it’s exciting to see how mainstream queer romcoms are finding their own identity, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my favorite movie of the genre. This honor goes to the utterly charming, trailblazing, and in–need–of–a–resurgence indie: Saving Face.
Saving Face is a 2004 American rom–com that follows a Chinese American mother and daughter, who unbeknownst to the other, are carrying out their own illicit affairs. Wil (played endearingly by Michelle Krusiec) is a talented surgeon, a dutiful daughter who attends weekly matchmaking dinners, and a lesbian secretly carrying out a relationship with the flirtatious dancer Vivian. Wil’s widowed mother Hwei–Lan (a terrific Joan Chen) has just gotten pregnant and refuses to name the father. Both of them privately worry that their choices will disappoint their family and ostracize them from their tight–knit Chinese community in Queens.
After Wil’s grandparents make Hwei–Lan move in with Wil until she can find a husband to raise the child with, the two of them are forced to move the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other under the same roof and take on roles in each other's lives that they never expected.
Stories of maternal strife have long dominated the Asian American narrative and particularly the tradition of Asian American cinema, from The Joy Luck Club to Everything Everywhere All At Once. This dynamic is frequently derided by Asian American critics for its pitting of East and West, mother and daughter, and tradition and progress, against one another.
However, Saving Face was light years ahead of the zeitgeist. Writer–director Alice Wu could have easily fallen into old and unsatisfying stereotypes about the kind of story she was telling. Unlike many other diaspora narratives, Saving Face is concerned with cultural tension, yet never positions the East and West as irreconcilable binaries. Wil may be uncomfortable falling in love with Vivian, but she’s confident in her sexuality. Hwei–Lan may have a complicated idea of her daughter’s sexuality, but she feels more shame over her own sexual life than Wil’s. Wu insists on the fluidity of tradition and identity. No one and nothing in Saving Face occupies perfectly opposite ends of a spectrum.
Perhaps most satisfying, Saving Face just wants its audience to feel good. It’s a sweet, sexy, and very, very funny portrait of love. Alice Wu penned this frank and warmly romantic take on sexuality, community, and the nuances of Chinese immigrant communities and expectations decades before the word "representation" went mainstream. This is what makes Saving Face so quietly revolutionary: its insistence on joy, on happy endings, and love in all forms.
Saving Face was well received upon arrival, but it was certainly not met with as much press as current queer films are accustomed to. The New York Times called it “amiable” but complained that it “forfeits its credibility...with a series of instant feel–good solutions and reconciliations.” Entertainment Weekly called it “pleasant” but “sketchy.” Variety complained that it was much tamer than The L Word.
None of the reviews seemed to find Saving Face groundbreaking. The now–common laudatory, often self–congratulatory, response Hollywood offers to itself when it deigns to shed light on marginalized identities was missing.
In a way, this more positive response to queer cinema is refreshing. Any criticism of this new era of queer film isn’t to take away from the strides current films are still making. But Hollywood sure does love to pat itself on the back for financing those strides. What needs to be emphasized more than ever, as Hollywood takes more and more queer stories to mainstream audiences, is that diverse films made by diverse teams have existed for a long time.
It’s often true that earlier films like Saving Face are not given credit for their groundbreaking status upon release, and also like Wu’s film, come mostly from independent studios. These distinctions between independent and studio films are important. You could say that mainstream recognition represents a culture moving forward towards acceptance and gives marginalized communities the opportunity to see themselves on the big screen.
Yes, and no. The Saving Face’s of the world have been getting made for years. These movies are not actually new; the calculation of major studios that queer people are now a viable marketing group is.
The lack of recognition for previous queer films shouldn’t diminish the historic moment we’re living in. But instead of waiting for mainstream studios to catch up to the present, audiences should take a step back and give something new (or new to them, at least) a chance. Saving Face has been here since 2004, and it’s waiting for you to discover it.