Debuting writer-director Alice Wu’s romantic comedy-drama “Saving Face” is a warmly observed, low-key charmer about a closeted Chinese-American lesbian and her traditionalist mother, both reluctant to go public with secret loves that clash against cultural expectations. Less burdened by earnest intentions than other indie examinations of Asian-American women’s experience, the film’s appealing characters and amusing situations prevail over its general shortage of energy. However, a tighter edit and quickened pace might improve the crossover potential of this Sony Pictures Classics release.
A hardworking surgeon at a Manhattan Hospital, Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec) endures relentless attempts by her mother (Joan Chen) and gossiping cronies from the Chinese community to foist eligible bachelors upon her. Years earlier, Wil’s mother walked in on her and a female lover, but mom has refused to acknowledge the incident or to accept her daughter’s sexuality.
Wil’s privacy is further threatened when her widowed mother lands pregnant on her doorstep. Unwilling to divulge the identity of her lover, mom, a still-youthful 48-year-old is exiled by her own stern father (Li Zhiyu) until she can rustle up a respectable husband.Complications are heightened by Wil’s blossoming relationship with ballet dancer Vivian (Lynn Chen). Wil’s long working hours and her hesitation to welcome Vivian more fully into her life push the dancer away. At the same time, after a thankless return to the dating circuit, Wil’s mother bows to pressure to marry well-meaning, dull Cho (Nathaniel Geng). But revelations on the day of the wedding prompt both mother and daughter to listen to their hearts.
An unlikely, small-scale project to come from Will Smith and James Lassiter’s Overbrook Entertainment shingle, the film is far more accomplished at coaxing gentle humor and universal emotional experience out of its specific cultural milieu than it is at pacing and momentum. But despite the lethargy of the opening reels in particular, Wu’s affection for the characters, regardless of where they stand, keeps things agreeable and entertaining.
The comedy succeeds in spanning the fragile bridge between traditional values and independent spirit, between an insular, judgmental community and the more cosmopolitan world beyond. It takes some predictable turns but ultimately arrives at a satisfying payoff. The romantic action here is a little tame compared with the steamy “The L Word,” for example, but lesbian audiences and women in general should respond to Wil’s struggle, as well as her mother’s difficult path.
Chen looks too young and beautiful to play the disapproving mother, but humorously embraces the contradictions of a character who frowns upon transgression while secretly nursing her own unorthodox desires. Krusiec also gets a nice handle on Wil’s awkward bid to assert herself while keeping family bonds intact.
Lenser Harlan Bosmajian’s warm lighting and composer Anton Sanko’s light-hearted score add to the engaging tone. Sole technical limitation is a problematic sound mix that frequently muddies dialogue.