SAVING FACE vivian and wil

To the joy of gay Chinese Americans everywhere, Netflix recently announced the production of THE HALF OF IT, the follow-up to SAVING FACE, by Alice Wu. THE HALF OF IT will be a lesbian romantic comedy, and is about a “shy, introverted, Chinese-American, straight-A student helping the school jock woo the girl they both secretly love.”

It’s welcome news to hear of a film that tells a new queer story, rather than the ones perpetuated in mainstream. Our queer storylines for the past few years have been dominated by white cis male protagonists. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, with the Twink and Older Man archetypes, was one of the biggest queer films in 2017. The Oscar darling BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, though barely mentioning the gay shit, was also a movie depicting a bisexual white man. LOVE, SIMON is primarily about the internal conflicts of Simon, who — you guessed it — was a gay white guy.

This isn’t the first time Alice Wu is tackling an Asian American lesbian romantic comedy. She is most well-known for SAVING FACE, a film released in 2004. SAVING FACE follows Wilhemina (“Wil”) and her burgeoning romance with the ballet and modern dancer Vivian. Simultaneously, Wil has to take in her unexpectedly pregnant single mom, Gao, who has been kicked out of her grandparents’ house. 

SAVING FACE vivian and wil
Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

The Thing About Representation…

With any discussion of Asian American representation in media, gay or straight, I think it’s important to acknowledge the elephant. Representation isn’t revolution and there are some nuanced questions we have to ask. For instance, why are there so few South and Southeast Asian protagonists? Why do East Asian American stories dominate “Asian American” ones? Where are the stories that depict working class issues like poverty, gentrification, and sex work?

SAVING FACE depicts a very narrow slice of the gay Asian American experience. How many of us are upper-middle class successful surgeons who fall in love, with an equally upper-middle class successful dancer? The only issue Wil and Vivian really have is miscommunication and dealing with slight familial disapproval! (Wil’s mother disowns her for something like less than a week!)

And sure, it is too much to ask SAVING FACE to be the end-all, be-all gay Asian American story. SAVING FACE doesn’t claim to do that, nor does it attempt to. It stays in its lane well and its goal is to simply depict its upper-middle class love story. However, the issue is, nearly 15 years later, SAVING FACE is still one of the only Asian American lesbian films. It is still really one of the only stories that we think of when we say queer Asian American films, when there should be other much more urgent, nuanced, and complex queer Asian American stories next to it.

Revisiting SAVING FACE

And yet while doing the due diligence of saying that there should just, you know, be more out there, we can also acknowledge that SAVING FACE is an incredibly heartwarming and charming take on how romance can affect three generations of a Chinese American family.

The beginning of the movie takes us to Planet China, and introduces us to Flushing’s Asian American community in a dinner/dance party. The scene is complete with the way-too-serious patriarchal figure, the gossiping aunties, the mostly silent uncles standing together, the too-much mother, the matchmaking mothers, the awkward Chinese community social gatherings, and the fed-up closeted gay kids in the corner. It’s a film that is fully aware of what it means to be gay in a tight-knit Chinese American community — hilarity and hurt, exasperation and a sense of obligation. These are the odds that Vivian and Wil face, the microcosm their romance has to answer to, as they cross paths at one of these dull social obligations.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

The romance between Wil and Vivian is sweet. However, it falls flat occasionally because of their stale dialogue during pivotal scenes. At their best, Vivian and Wil are flirting with “learning to fall” dance techniques, and warming your heart with something like fizzy champagne bubbles. At their worst, Vivian and Wil have a completely bizarre exchange in an important breakup scene. During it, Vivian tosses out, standoffishly and casually at the approaching Wil, that she fed her hot dog to the pigeons. Wil answers back with an out of place quip. She confusingly states something about how they don’t want to let pigeons develop a taste for flesh. That one phrase killed the entire meaningful scene’s emotional tension and I found it admittedly hard to care about their breakup.

Wu’s Tender Spot for Her Supporting Characters

What really saves SAVING FACE is Alice Wu’s warm and clever sketches of supporting characters in the film. It’s clear that she has a fondness for every character. Wu envelopes characters like the crochety, stern, conservative grandpa, or the bumbling, overly-earnest Cho who wants to marry Gao, in affection. Though she doesn’t linger on them very long, the people are vivid and memorable, and all somehow likable. She casts a glow on them, even when you don’t want to root for them and find them exasperating.

Wil, though the main character of the movie, doesn’t carry it. Gao, her mother, is the most vivid and nuanced character for me. She is all at once overbearing, stubborn, tender, and sensitive. She’s bigoted and yet kind. Gao wants love, but is afraid to choose it. Though this is similar to Wil’s dilemma, Gao’s struggle feels more colorful, more detailed. The scene where she checks out an Asian porn tape (as part of her exploration of her freedom) is hilarious. Her depressed daytime drama marathons are dark, and we can feel the loneliness. Out of all the characters, Wu’s best energy and sympathy is for Gao.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

SAVING FACE is an aspirational story. It’s embedded with the cliché trope that love can overcome all, even insular communities and gossiping aunties. It’s resolved simply with best-case scenarios for everyone: Gao gets together with her young lover and Wil and Vivian reconcile. One of the ending shots is a slow drawn back overhead of Vivian and Wil embracing in the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by whirling dancers spinning around the couple. They’re a quiet, perfect, center among a sea of moving bodies. There’s a clarity they’ve achieved, and it’s heartwarming.

SAVING FACE: Flawed, Aspirational, and Charming…

Although flawed, SAVING FACE is still many years later, a necessary film. We do need hilarious hopeful stories. We need strange utopias where you could have it all: a successful career, a hot girlfriend, only a week disownment from your parents, and still a place in the community you’ve grown up in. You want to have strength and perseverance to see your mother the way Wu sees Gao — to have an abundant amount of empathy and energy to forgive her, and thereby by some osmosis, yourself. Perhaps more than the cliché trope that romantic love overcomes any barrier, it’s a (still cliché) hopeful story in which familial love, too, can perhaps overcome anything. That’s the gay Asian American dream, I guess: familial love that just maybe can get through anything.

Wil and Gao at banquet
Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

We are not convinced by the main saccharine romance. But we are surprisingly moved by vibrant supporting characters that flicker around them. Although not revolutionary and being an easily digestible facet of what the lesbian Asian American experience looks like, SAVING FACE has an undeniable charming core. It’s highly palatable and not challenging in a specific political or socioeconomic sense. But that would be all fine if in the years since SAVING FACE’s buzz, if there were many more other queer Asian American stories that exist also in the popular imagination.

I look forward to Alice Wu’s take on an Asian American lesbian teenage rom com. SAVING FACE is an excellent directorial debut for her. If she’s polished up her romantic dialogue skills, THE HALF OF IT could be a really great film.

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