A friend of mine refers to Alice Wu’s 2004 feature Saving Face as her “favorite Chinese-American lesbian romantic comedy”. The compliment is meant as kind of a joke, as there aren’t many films that fit the profile. Hence the cultural significance of organizations like the San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival, the largest international film festival devoted to the exhibition and distribution of such titles. As Kartina Richardson points out in an heartfelt essay on The Joy Luck Club, few American films tell stories about Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters. Saving Face addresses minorities often relegated to the margins, activated as stereotypes, or tokenized. In doing so, it also suggests that many people occupy multiple identities simultaneously. There aren’t many films from Asian and Asian-American directors about their fictional counterparts negotiating queer identities—Ann Hui’s All About Love being but one more example—nor are there a large number of titles that focus on the generational tensions between Asian mothers and Asian-American daughters, so Saving Face remains a major contribution.
As the title suggests, many people are hung up on appearances in Saving Face. Protagonist Wilhelmina Pang (Michelle Krusiec) is focused on her medical career. Wil’s success as a surgeon is a major source of pride for her mother Gao (Joan Chen), but also plays into a number of positive stereotypes about Asian and Asian-American achievement in the sciences that makes her daughter uncomfortable. Wil also has trouble coming out to her mother and passes off her new lover Vivian Shing (Lynn Chen) as a friend. Wil’s denial of their relationship understandably displeases Vivian, who is working through her own professional crises.
Like Wil, Vivian is also a paragon of Chinese-American female achievement. She is a classically trained ballerina with a desire to pursue experimental dance. Tired of being put back into the closet, Vivian leaves Wil for an opportunity to dance in Europe. Finally, Wil’s mother Gao is also worried about trespassing societal boundaries. She is shunned by her community in Flushing after becoming pregnant out of wedlock and forced to move in with Wil. In an effort to preserve her father’s reputation, Gao almost enters into a loveless marriage with Stimson Cho (Nathaniel Geng) despite romantic feelings for someone else. Wil intervenes and Gao returns the favor by reuniting her daughter with Vivian at a party. The two go public with a slow dance that attendants honor as both a lovely gesture and no big deal.
Saving Face could get really preachy if it wanted to. But that it addresses multiple concerns with a light touch is one of its virtues. The second time I saw this film was at a margarita-soaked bachelorette party. It followed a late-night screening of 27 Dresses and worked in that context as well as it might on the festival circuit or in the arthouse.
To my mind, there are a few major differences between the first and second installments of the Bechdel Test Canon. When I launched this series in November 2010, I was more interested in films that dealt directly with personal experience. Despite a few entries, most of the series also consisted of critically acclaimed and commercially successful international titles. With the second series, I’m trying to focus a bit more explicitly on women and girls’ political struggles, include more films that centralize perspectives from women of color, and honor contributions from directors of color. As a result, I may risk insisting that Bitch’s readership eat its cinematic broccoli and inadvertently champion films that other people think are mediocre. Did I put Saving Face in the canon (a construct I’m playing with rather than taking seriously) because I actually liked it or because I think it’s culturally significant?
As much as I’d like to think the answer is “both”—an answer I’d use to explain including The Watermelon Woman and I Like It Like That—I recognize that much of the second series “canonizes” little-seen Important Films that may ultimately help make the case that, to borrow from a colleague, the politics of representation don’t work. Speaking on a panel about race, ethnicity, and national identity in comedy, she noted the obligation African-American communities felt to support programs like Reed Between the Lines, a BET sitcom starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm Jamal Warner that’s “respectable” but, in her assessment, not particularly funny.
Such frustration led media scholars to push against the limits of representational politics by recasting Flavor Of Love as satire or arguing that programs like Basketball Wives centralize black female affect while dispensing entirely with the politics of positive representation. As a feminist, I marvel and am energized by the audacity of such work. Molly Lambert defined 2011 as the year of the crazy bitch, one where Young Adult, Homeland, and Enlightened challenged the sexist double standards of antiheroism (which, to acknowledge the ableist use of the word “crazy,” often makes mental illness seem dangerous and therefore super sexy). While I’m for Charlize Theron sinking her teeth into a role as unapologetically loathsome as alcoholic YA ghostwriter Mavis Gary (with reservations), I cannot ignore another double standard that may inform why people are okay with indulging in The Real Housewives of New Jersey but distance themselves from the Atlanta season. Many people simply aren’t comfortable with seeing women of color as anything less than ambassadors of respectability. But as Saving Face makes clear, there’s a lot of pressure to live up to such (often implicitly racist) expectations. Why be an example when it’s much more thrilling and difficult to be a person instead?