Sony // 2004 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // January 23rd, 2006
A romantic comedy about right, wrong, and everything in between.
At first glance, Saving Face looks like any number of the recent ethnic-American comedies. Ever since My Big Fat Greek Wedding burst onto the scene and made more money than the whole Italian mob that year, every other ethnic group in the United States has had a turn. The good news is that Saving Face is one of the best of them, partly because it's more drama than comedy.
Wil (Michelle Krusiek, Duplex) is dragged to local Chinese dinners by her mother, in an attempt to hook her up with a nice Chinese boy before it's too late. Wil is an attractive and successful Manhattan doctor, and also a lesbian -- a fact that she hides from her traditional grandparents and mother. But that's not the only secret in the family. Wil's mother, Hwei-Lan (Joan Chen, Sunflower) -- known mainly as "Ma" -- is pregnant, which is a troubling fact since she has been widowed for so long and lives with her elderly parents. Hwei-Lan is cast out of the house, and comes barging in on Wil's independence.
Wil's life becomes even more complicated as she starts up a relationship with her boss' daughter Viv (Lynn Chen, Mentor). Suddenly, she finds herself trying to carry on a secret, committed relationship, while also trying to find an eligible bachelor for her mother.
The plot synopsis for Saving Face makes it sound hackneyed. It is obviously trying to hit all of the hot issues and conventions of the offbeat romantic comedy genre. That made me a little wary going in, since there are few things in cinema that annoy me as much as generic romantic comedies. It is high praise then, that I found myself completely caught up in Saving Face. There are a few features that make it stand above the genre.
The main reason for Saving Face's success is a collection of flawless performances. Joan Chen gets top billing, even though she isn't the main character. Her performance is a riveting paradox: a middle-aged Chinese woman who has broken a major taboo and yet still refuses to accept her daughter's homosexuality. Her first tentative steps into a different world are compelling, as she discovers freedom away from her own parents. Wil is played brilliantly by Michelle Krusiek, who injects her character with so much emotion that it's easy to forget she's built on a collection of stereotypes. She changes completely depending on her surroundings, and those shifts are interesting to watch. Relative newcomer Lynn Chen is a revelation, forming a character who is infinitely appealing and uniquely human.
These performances are supported by a powerful script, that often succeeds in making the audience completely forget they are watching a romantic comedy. It is witty and sharp, featuring a barbed sense of humor that cuts to the core of the characters without ever feeling too heavy. Much of the humor comes from the the Chinese immigrants' use of language. They switch from Chinese to English so rapidly it's difficult to keep up. It allows for a number of very clever conversations, since many of the characters do not speak one or the other of the languages. Not many directors would be bold enough to make a bilingual film in America. They also wouldn't be bold enough to film a very intimate and steamy lesbian love scene in a comedy. When risks pay off, they result in films that feel much more realistic than their dull contemporaries. By that yardstick, director Alice Wu has delivered an astonishing debut film.
Unfortunately, things do fall apart a bit at the end. There are generic confrontations, and the traditional characters accept the new world they've found themselves in far too quickly. There's even a requisite scene at an airport, though it doesn't end the way we expect. Still, I loved these characters so much by that point that I didn't even mind. They earned their sappy ending, and romantic comedies can only really end in one way -- I would probably be complaining more if Saving Face had ended in misery and pain.
Sony has delivered a fine disc as well. The video transfer is sharp and clean, with bold colors and good details. While many of the sequences are quite muted, those set in Flushing burst with bold reds and greens, which have been perfectly rendered. The sound is fine as well, with clear dialogue, well mixed music, and very subtle use of the subwoofer and surrounds.
There are also a surprising number of extras for such a small film. Alice Wu delivers a solid commentary track, revealing the passion that she has for the film. It's a lot of the usual discussion about production and filming, but she is easy to listen to. There are also a few deleted scenes, wisely cut from the final film. This is followed by a production featurette, which was obviously funded by Sony. Much better is the Sundance diary, which has some unfiltered interviews.
If you are a fan of romantic comedies, Saving Face is a must see. It hits all the right notes, and contains some hilarious moments. If you're not a fan of romantic comedies, this may be one that's actually worth checking out. Featuring genuine conflict and very human characters, it works just as well as a drama. Congratulations to all involved.
There, I made it through the whole review without drawing attention to the fact that Saving Face has hot Asian lesbians.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Behind the Scenes
* Sundance Diary
* Deleted Scenes