Scrolling through common lesbian film recommendations, one can notice a glaring similarity: most feature two white women. Sure, there are one or two films with women of color, but most of the time they are forgotten. Recently, there have been efforts to shed light on stories of lesbian women of color in Pariah, The Handmaiden, and Billie and Emma. Before these films, there was Alice Wu’s Saving Face.
Saving Face may ring a bell for those in the LGBTQ+ community. It has risen to popularity amongst the community because of its director’s latest film The Half of It, a lesbian romcom released on Netflix. Since then, it has appeared in listicles, highlighting its relevance sixteen years after its theatrical release. During its theatrical run, the film was praised for its Asian and lesbian representation, even earning some accolades along the way. It has been kept alive in LGBTQ+ circles for its positive representation and its happy ending. It is a niche film beloved by queer women, especially queer Asian women.
The film focuses on Willhelmina “Will” Pang (Michelle Krusiec), a young doctor who is not out to her mother, Gao (Joan Chen) and her mother’s friends. She goes to a social gathering place called Planet China for her mother to match her with a friend’s son. There, Will meets Vivian Shing (Lynn Chen), who she becomes infatuated with. Things get complicated when Will’s mother becomes pregnant out of wedlock and gets thrown out of their family home for bringing dishonor to their family.
Expectations are present wherever we are: our family has expectations for us, society has expectations for us. There are certain expectations imposed on the film’s main characters. Wu’s characterization includes this external pressure; a major one being Will’s mother expecting her to be a straight woman. Well-intentioned Gao subscribes to this idea by meddling with her daughter’s love life. It comes from the desire to give her daughter the best life. She personally knows that when societal expectations are not met, terrible things occur—as an unmarried pregnant woman, she got kicked out by her father and deemed a disgrace to their household. The film challenges these societal expectations by presenting Gao a convenient way out of her distress and having her refuse it. The deliberate choice to go against one’s cultural expectations to follow one’s own desires is an act of bravery.
Family pressures are a consistent thread present in the film that both Will and her mother experience. Will feels this through her mother, encouraging her to be married to a respectable Chinese man. She goes along her mother’s antics despite it conflicting with her own sexuality. Gao experiences pressure to get married because she is pregnant. Despite their differences, Will still helps her mother by becoming the matchmaker for her. Will knows helping her mother get married is necessary to be accepted within their Chinese-American community. Her mother finds out that she cannot go through with the customs of her Chinese culture because it conflicts with her true desires; she cannot marry a respectable Chinese man because she is in love with someone else, much like her daughter.
The main romantic pairing of the film is Vivian and Will. It is a brave decision, especially since it’s produced and directed in Hollywood where Asian-American stories are rarely given any limelight. Vivian and Will’s relationship is like that of any good romcom, but it is made complicated by internalized homophobia and homophobia. They start off with the meet-cute, the misunderstanding, and ends with grand gestures that solve their original misunderstanding. Gao is one of the sources of homophobia in Will’s life. When Will and Vivian’s relationship became serious, Vivian urges Will to let her meet Will’s mother. During the meeting, Gao reveals that she knows about Will’s sexuality but refuses to believe it. The revelation showed that Gao knowingly sets up her daughter in dates with men in hopes she can change her to be a heterosexual woman. Will has internalized these harmful behaviors because of the belief that she will not be accepted within her community. This is most apparent when Will refuses to kiss Vivian in public. Vivian does not understand and even loathes that her girlfriend refuses to kiss her in public. In contrast to Will’s experience, Vivian is also raised in the Chinese-American community, but her family supports her sexuality. The support she receives makes her blind to the struggles of those without it. In a pivotal moment in the film, Vivian encourages Will to kiss her in public or she will leave. Will hesitates, which solidifies Vivian’s decision to leave.
Happy endings are the mainstay of any good romcom, and Saving Face follows the same beats of many romcoms before it. Gao drops the choice of having a perfect Chinese-American life to pursue her love. Gao and Will resolve their strained relationship through acceptance. Most importantly, Will and Vivian end up together. This is crucial, especially in the LGBTQ+ film canon. According to Haley Hulan, Bury your Gays, also called the Dead Lesbian Syndrome, is a trope used to “allow LGBTQ+ authors to tell stories which featured characters like them without risking social backlash, breaking laws regarding ‘promoting’ homosexuality, or the loss of their career and that of their publisher.” The trope appears again and again in novels, films, plays, and television in the West. Hulan notes that the trope is no longer necessary since the emergence of the LGBTQ+ movement and the changing attitudes of the mainstream population. The act of seeing lesbian relationships in happy and healthy environments is encouraging for young lesbians and queer women to see a future where they are also in happy and healthy relationships. This is why it is necessary to create and support films and narratives that feature these types of relationships and endings.
Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, has developed the Male Gaze theory, where women in film are viewed through the lens of a heterosexual man. Through the screen, women become objectified by this male desire. In the lesbian film canon, men are usually the ones behind the camera. Wu defies the male gaze by changing the lens to that of a lesbian woman, and by giving her female characters the motivation to pursue their own goals. As a Chinese-American lesbian woman, Wu brings authenticity to her story in her writing and direction. Her writing reflects her own culture as a Chinese-American and the struggles that come with being one and a lesbian.
Saving Face focuses on the love shared between women in a romantic and familial sense. Wu lets us know that this love transcends that of societal pressures through the happy ending that she gives to Will and Vivian.