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Traditional? No way

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Special to The Times

Perched on the edge of a sofa, Alice Wu keeps sitting up and punctuating her conversation with exuberant hand gestures. She loves to tell a story, especially when she can finish it off with a comic twist. The irony is, says the first-time filmmaker, “when I grew up, I never thought a Chinese kid could be a writer.” Then she adds with a laugh, “That was before Amy Tan.”

Later, she not only dreamed of becoming a writer, she decided to become a film director as well, to tell her story even more effectively. Now she’s proved that dreams do come true, when you can hold on to them.

Last year she finished making a film from her own script, “Saving Face,” a romantic comedy starring veteran Joan Chen and rising young actresses Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen. It was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution, then had its American debut at Sundance in January. She was in town recently when her film launched the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, or VC FilmFest. It opens theatrically today.

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And to think there might have been a detour.

In 2001 her script for “Saving Face” won the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) screenwriting award. This led to a meeting with Teddy Zee, a partner with James Lassiter and Will Smith in Overbrook Entertainment, and one of Hollywood’s most highly placed Asian American producers. However, the appeal of her romantic comedy seemed narrow -- a Chinese American lesbian torn between a new (taboo) love affair and her strong sense of duty to her tradition-spouting mother, set against the backdrop of the Chinese community in Flushing, a section of Queens, New York.

Zee was impressed with Wu’s writing, though, and encouraged her to move to Los Angeles and take up screenwriting. But Wu stuck to her vision. She stayed in New York; she kept looking for funding. Six months later, Zee called and offered to produce the film.

The offer came at just the right time. “I do think that five years ago I wouldn’t have made this film very well,” says Wu, 35, “and five years from now I wouldn’t be able to make this film at all -- I’d be in a different place.”

Wu, born in San Jose to parents who immigrated from Taiwan, was an only child whose most constant companions were books -- fantasy, sci-fi, novels. At 16 she finished high school and entered MIT, later transferring to Stanford University.

“All along I’d secretly wanted to write, but I was too chicken to take a creative writing class,” she admits. It would have been too exposing, she says, and she didn’t think she could take the criticism. Instead, she studied computer sciences, eventually earning a master’s degree from Stanford.

“I’m the daughter of Chinese immigrants,” she says, now putting on a no-nonsense tone. “I do need to be practical; I have to pay off my loans. Also, I have to think about taking care of my parents.”

At 19, after years of some confusion, she finally acknowledged her homosexuality. At a time well before lesbianism became chic with “The L Word,” that was hard enough. It was even more difficult coming out to her beloved mother. (Her parents were by then separated.) “It went terribly when I came out to my mom” during a Thanksgiving visit, she says. Her mother’s response: “Well, I don’t think you’re gay, and if you ever take a lover, I never want to see you again.”

They did not speak for two years. “It was so painful,” Wu says, and she falls uncharacteristically silent.

Eventually, her mother did call, and they have mended their relationship. More recently, she helped Alice write the Chinese dialogue for “Saving Face,” and she attends public screenings of the film.

After college, Wu went to work for Microsoft in Seattle. Five years in, there was a lull in the workload, and she took a screenwriting course through the University of Washington extension program.

The script she produced -- and which she turned in with fear and loathing -- proved so adept that her teacher, Geof Miller, wanted to option it. Expanded from an idea for a novel she had had years before, the script featured a young Chinese American woman, Wilhelmina “Wil” Pang, who seems so in charge of her career as a budding New York City surgeon yet proves so clumsy at love when coquettish Vivian dances into her life. To complicate things, Wil’s widowed mother moves in with her when kicked out of her own parent’s home -- for becoming pregnant. “After talking with him,” says Wu, “it was clear I had such specific ideas about how I’d shoot the film, so I’d better make it myself.”

Miller suggested she move to L.A. or New York to learn how a film is made. Six weeks later, she moved to New York.

She volunteered for crew and production jobs; she learned editing. She polished her script and showed it around. “You are never going to get this film made,” people would tell her. “It’s Chinese, it’s gay, it’s half in Mandarin.” (For the sake of authenticity, Wu insisted on including Mandarin dialogue.)

Fortunately, producer Zee saw through to the universality of the themes. “It’s about family dynamics,” he says. “It’s about our right to have a chance at love no matter who we are.” He gave the first-time director a chance because “the script was so well written, by a person who lived and breathed every moment in that screenplay.”

Knowing how important casting would be, Wu auditioned some 1,000 actors for 35 speaking parts. For budgetary reasons, most of the cast had to be based in New York. However, the two major parts went to West Coast actresses. Krusiec, a Chinese actress raised in Virginia and now living in Los Angeles, was so determined to get the role of Wil that she vowed to go to Taiwan to learn Chinese -- and did. It is her first starring role. Joan Chen, the best known of the cast, so coveted the part of Wil’s mother that she vowed to play frumpy -- and does (although she gets a glamorous moment too).

“The character was a great character for me to play,” says Chen. “The moment that I saw she got pregnant at age 48, I started to laugh. I decided, this is going to be different; this is going to be fun.” Known for her tragic turns in “The Last Emperor” and “Heaven and Earth,” this is her first romantic comedy, and her lines have gotten some of the biggest laughs from preview audiences. “The delicious thing is that I don’t have to try to be funny, I just have to be earnest to the moment,” she says. “The more earnest I am, the funnier I am.”

Wu says she is fascinated by human ineptitude, and her story “is about two women who believe they need to be perfect in order to gain love. Wil is an overachiever, but she’s a bumbling idiot when it comes to her emotions. It’s not until the mother messes up in this spectacular way that their life begins.”

Although she did not set out to make a “message film,” she observes, “we so rarely see Asian American characters on screen who are allowed the full range of emotions. I think that’s why people relate to this film: They forget everyone’s Chinese -- and it’s because they’re behaving just like people!”


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