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Saving Face

Saving Face

Rated R, 91 min. Directed by Alice Wu. Starring Joan Chen, Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen, Jessica Hecht, Ato Essandoh, David Shih, Brian Yang.

REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., July 1, 2005

This breezy Chinese-American coming-out comedy has a big cast, but the film belongs to Joan Chen. As a fortysomething, traditionalist widow unexpectedly pregnant by a man she will not name to her busybody friends and neighbors, Chen is marvelous to watch: subdued and warily watchful, but with a free spirit chafing inside for release. Essentially ostracized from her suburban New York community, she heads into the city to bunk with her daughter Wil (Krusiec), a high-strung surgeon who’s in the process of alienating herself as well – by pursuing a romance with another woman (Lynn Chen). Nothing about the film’s concept is earth-shattering; despite its careful considerations of how ethnic, generational, and family identities collide with the anything-goes ethos of modern love in the city, it’s a pretty standard romantic comedy, a less farcical female cousin to Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet. Much has been made about the film’s love scene – in the way that people will misguidedly make a fuss over beautiful lesbians – but the affair is sensitively and thoughtfully developed in images and gestures. Krusiec has a great physical presence on camera, playing Wil in a scrunched-up posture, and there’s a delightful moment in which her lover shows her techniques for falling down unharmed in classical dance. It’s a fine romance, but the pleasure in watching it pales in comparison to seeing Chen come out of her shell onscreen – dating a series of mismatched but well-intentioned suitors while disguising the bump in her belly, reacting to the inevitably chummy gay man next door ("Your neighbor is too loud and too dark and eats too much soy sauce," she whispers to Wil in Mandarin), and perusing the aisles at the neighborhood video store, where she finds three or four mainstream titles pertaining to China and a whole slew of fetishistic Asian porn (which of course she rents, after doubling back sheepishly). Hollywood has never known what to do with Chen – all too often she’s been exotic set dressing in mainstream productions, even in Twin Peaks – but her quiet gravity and luminescence are perfectly appreciable here. Her nuance at times brings into greater relief writer-director Wu’s freshman status – her script takes a few ill-advised expository shortcuts, for example – but the film is surprisingly fresh and charming overall.
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