‘Saving Face’ in a Heterosexual World: A Review of Alice Wu’s Film

This film analysis was written for Flip Screen as part of showcasing LGBT films during Pride Month. The original post can be found here.

If you’ve ever had the urge to watch a movie from the early 2000s about Chinese lesbians living in New York City, Alice Wu has got you covered.

Saving Face begins with Wilhelmia (Michelle Krusiac), nicknamed by her friends and family as Wil, wearing a face mask in her bathroom. Alice Wu provides a brillant visualization for the film’s namesake and is explained later through dialogue when Raymond’s mother comments that her son and Wil’s face reflects the image of a good marriage. Yet it shouldn’t be simplified as honor or reputation. 

“Face”, in this respect, should be understood instead as a complex concept that is regarded with great importance within Chinese culture as it plays a large role in how people interact with each other whether they are making business deals or casually talking at a party. Creating a movie based on the idea of “face” creates a legitimacy on depicting the Chinese-American experience that was necessary for the film to be effective with its audience.

Alice Wu presents another tangible metaphor in Saving Face when Wil and Vivian (Lynn Chen) meet at the park but are separated by a tennis fence. Wil finds herself unable to kiss Vivian in front of other people at the park due to a fear of judgment. Simple yet effective, the audience can now understand that the fence does not only exist physically in front of them but also within Wil’s mind. 

While much of Wil’s unhappiness can be understood by living in her intolerant society, this scene brilliantly shows that some of her pain is caused by herself. Saving Face then effectively resonates with many people of the LGBT community who have felt this same kind of repression and subsequent mentality. 

When considering that Saving Face is told from Wil’s perspective, the female gaze becomes obvious during scenes with Vivian. The male gaze has become so overdone in films, incorrectly assuming that audiences are mostly heterosexual men, that the female alternative feels almost refreshing. It adds authenticity towards portraying the lesbian experience since the lingering looks between Vivian and Wil aren’t an assertion of power over each other, but rather as a form of communication when they don’t be want to be outed in a heterosexual world. 

Despite not receiving the same attention as other LGBT movies, Saving Face definitely holds its own sense of importance. Alice Wu wrote Saving Face based on her own life experiences which saves Saving Face from being created by heterosexual writers who don’t understand the distinct perspective of being a lesbian. Saving Face also provides an image of the past during a time when the LGBT community experienced less tolerance from mainstream society. People have always wanted to write and watch LGBT stories; they’re not a recent phenomenon. 

Saving Face also stands out in the world of LGBT cinema for including Asian characters when most lesbians portrayed in movies are white Americans or Europeans. These depictions are not fair to the actual population of lesbians who exist in every culture across the globe. It fails to  resonate with women of color who face an additional layer of racial discrimination and cultural expectations that are not typically experienced by white lesbians as well. For example, Wil receives some criticism from her mother’s friends about being unmarried at twenty-eight years old since Chinese culture expects her to have already found a husband whilst Vivian later expresses some internal doubt because she wishes to pursue modern dance while her Chinese family wants her to take the traditional path of mastering ballet.

While some critics have disapproved of Saving Face for having a “soap-opera like” ending, it shouldn’t be viewed negatively for that reason. The happy future for Wil and Vivian provides hope for an LGBT audience that are already facing dissent and judgment from their societies. Whenever heterosexual couples are trapped in a “forbidden romance” in other movies, it’s not because of their sexual orientation.