3 stars (out of four)
Writer/director Alice Wu's "Saving Face" might best be described as a dramedy of dueling taboos.
Sexy without being steamy, smart without being overtly dogmatic, "Saving Face" is the kind of movie you could take your mother to without squirming too much. It utilizes the same brand of ethnic humor that made "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" appealing without the lesbian sexual politics and broad laughs of "Kissing Jessica Stein," director Wu's other reference point.
Joan Chen lends her talents to this indie morality tale as Ma, a 48-year-old single woman who brings disgrace to her family when she finds herself pregnant without a husband.
After being banished from Flushing, Queens, by her father, she moves in with her grown daughter (and our main character) Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec). Predictably, Wil isn't too happy about having her hormonal mother underfoot, especially as Wil enters into a new romance with professional dancer Vivian Shing (Lynn Chen).
Though Wil's mother knows her daughter is gay, she ignores it, partly because her own predicament precludes her from open criticism. It's also easier for her to live in denial because she loves her daughter, despite ingrained cultural prejudices.
By placing her characters into a Catch-22 of cultural taboos and juxtaposing their traditional family roles, Wu frees herself from the many "us vs. them" elements of the gay coming-of-age film.
At the same time, "Saving Face" fondly embraces the dramatic comedy structure, from at-the-wedding-altar revelations up until a final, telegraphed spit-take joke.
Chen's fussy, tradition-obsessed Ma feels a tad stereotyped, given that she's a second-generation Chinese immigrant, though Chen pulls it off nicely. Raised in New York's Flushing neighborhood, her English remains poor and her cross-cultural etiquette is even worse (e.g., she links Wil's African-American neighbor's love of soy sauce to his skin color).
By comparison, Wil is thoroughly modern, caught between her mother and her grandfather's generationa promising surgeon who has pushed her love life aside for her career. Newcomer Krusiec's slight unease in front of the camera informs her performance as young lesbian shy in her budding sexuality.
Unexpected pregnancy and family politics can be heavy, dramatically explosive issues, but Wu tempers her direction with empathy and her script with well-placed laughs, attempting to bridge both cultural and generation gaps without alienating either. Younger viewers might be annoyed with "Saving Face" for not being more in-your-face progressive and edgy. Older audiences will be happy that it's not.
firstname.lastname@example.org - - - - -"Saving Face"
Written and directed by Alice Wu; photographed by Harlan Bosmajian; production design by Dan Ouellette; music by Anton Sanko; edited by Susan Graef and Sabine Hoffmann; produced by James Lassiter, Will Smith and Teddy Zee. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, Landmark's Renaissance in Highland Park and Century CineArts in Evanston. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating: R (for some sexuality and language).
Wilhelmina Pang - Michelle Krusiec
Ma - Joan Chen
Vivian Shing - Lynn Chen
Wai Gung (Grandpa) - Jin Wang
Wai Po (Grandma) - Guang Lan Koh
Jay - Ato Essandoh
Little Yu - Brian YangCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times