As a child, I grew up with the idea that the United States is a mixture of diverse ethnicities and a convergence of old traditions and new ideas.
From visiting Chinatown to celebrating ethnic holidays, it is a shared acknowledgement of our differences that unifies and defines us as a ‘melting pot’ culture.
But before we begin to praise multiculturalism, let me just tell you that having a bicultural, tricultural or multicultural background is no walk in the park. For me, being Chinese means separating stereotypical expectations like math mastery from realistic resolutions that are influenced by our present-day culture.
I bombed my A.P. statistics test and had to burn my scores to rid myself of the evidence that I had failed to be the model Asian-American.
However, after attending last Wednesday’s showing of Annie Wu’s independent film ‘Saving Face,’ my woes of numerical incompetence seemed insignificant compared to the protagonist’s conflict over coming out as a lesbian to her traditional, conservative mother and the gossiping Chinese society of Flushing, New York.
Wilhemina ‘Wil’ Pang (Michelle Krusiec) is best described as an onion. On the one hand, she achieves the Asian-American dream by being a talented doctor who satisfies her traditional obligations by dutifully respecting her elder’s wishes and allowing her mother, Ma (Joan Chen), to set her up on unsuitable dates with local Chinese bachelors.
However, once away from the fishbowl scrutiny of her mother’s society, she is a contradiction. As a doctor, she smokes, drinks alcohol and eats junk food out of vending machines and as an Asian-American, she speaks to her family in broken Chinese and displays no interest in finding a husband.
In fact, it isn’t a man who captured Wil’s heart, but another woman. Wil meets Vivian, a ballet dancer who aspires to go into modern dancing, while on one of her mother’s blind dates. Vivian represents everything contrary to Wil’s upbringing and she teaches Wil to rebel rather than conform to expectations.
Like in any romantic comedy, their relationship becomes complicated through social and familial interactions. Not only does Wil find out that Vivian is her boss’s daughter, she makes the more scandalous discovery that her 48-year-old single mother is pregnant and must live with her in order to escape society’s persecution.
Krusiec and Chen are a comedic duo whose collaboration resembles a Lucy and Ricky Ricardo relationship on screen. Like Lucy and Ricky, one is ostentatiously emotional while the other is objective and reserved. The chemistry between mother and daughter is the foundation that supports most of the movie’s humor and heart.
Chen is extraordinary in giving Ma depth and personality. She manipulates the idea of a sheltered first-generation woman assimilating into U.S. culture while also learning a new sense of independence from her second-generation daughter.
One scene epitomizing Ma’s first contact with the issue of race and sexuality is when she enters a video shop and finds her selections for ‘Chinese’ movies limited to imported Asian porn or titles like ‘The Last Emperor’ or ‘The Joy Luck Club.’ Ironically, Ma chooses porn and spends the night making hilarious faces of disapproval. She is still conservative, but her choice shows that her character is slowly discovering an alternative sexuality.
Wu interweaves relationships between lovers and family as well as the relationship between self-identity and community identity in order to touch the audience. Anyone who has ever tried to balance a love life with cultural expectations and family obligations can find him or herself in the film.
Wu also makes a distinction between each relationship. The love between Wil and Vivian is not the same as Wil’s reluctant love for her mother.
The portrait of love between the two lovers is more realistic here than in most movies. Awkward or embarrassing moments ruin the sensual scenes, but also make it easier for the viewers to relate to unexpected problems that occur in real life.
Wil and Ma’s relationship is bound by a shared conflict between fighting to be with the person they choose and being with the person chosen by their culture. As a result, they become closer because of their shared similarities.
The movie does have its cheesy moments and some parts of the narration are unnecessarily melodramatic. When Ma reveals the identity of her unborn child’s father at her wedding to another man