My dear dear cousin in New York had been ranting and raving about this show in her Friendster blog/review section and I was leaning towards the sceptical side until I caught wind of the trailer at its official website. It was then that I told myself that I had to watch this show…at least to see if modern day Chinese culture was really genuinely portrayed in the film.
Now, I’ll be honest. I casually forgot about this until I wandered into my regular DVD shop this evening and saw it sitting on the shelf. After watching it with Mum and a family friend, I must say that I’m thoroughly satisfied, if not tickled to bits, with the film. (Am not too sure if most of you have heard about this film; I didn’t until my cuz wrote about it.)
Saving Face, a film by Alice Wu – an American born Chinese who is also a homosexual, examines the intricate web of what makes Asian culture very unique (at least in my eyes) – the whole concept of ‘saving face’ – something which my ang moh boyfriend still fails to understand occasionally. While he and people of similar upbringing can sweep any form of failure aside and not be embarrassed by the notion of possible public humiliation, Asians are quite the opposite. We would do anything just to escape from public scrutiny and thoughts of how we have shamed our ancestors/family/parents/etc. That anything means putting up with endless ridicule in public, marriage to someone we didn’t love and living in denial throughout half our lifetime.
Wilhelmina or known as “Wil” throughout the film and played by Michelle Krusiec, a gifted doctor in the midst of completing her residence and seen to be an excellent surgeon poised to be Chief of Surgeon by 40, tackles her rather routine and almost boring life on a day-by-day basis. She lives alone and travels every week to Flushing in Queens to visit her widowed mother and grandparents. In the process, she finds herself putting up with Ma’s (Joan Chen) weekly matchmaking sessions at the usual Chinese social gatherings where everyone seems to know everyone else. Wil takes these sessions somewhat nonchalantly, if not annoyingly. After all, there is really nothing much that she can do but wait it out and hope that Ma will one day forget that Wil totally does not like boys.
The society is riddled with gossip and drama – Mrs so-and-so having been dumped for a woman twenty years younger than her; Mr so-and-so joking about back aches in relation to the possibility of finding young love. One quote particularly stands out: “Young people these days. Today, they say “I love you”. Tomorrow, who knows?” In Flushing, everyone is polite even though they hate each other to bits.
When a childhood friend and ultimately love interest comes knocking on Wil’s door in the form of very pretty dancer (played by Lynn Chen), the doctor finds herself in a predicament. Her family doesn’t know about her ‘uniqueness’ and it sure doesn’t help to have a pregnant Ma moving into her house because Wai Gung (Grandpa) disowned her mother for getting pregnant at 48. On top of things, no names were mentioned and in a fit of rage, the old man did what he could to save his face.
[in Mandarin] How can I not feel shame? My own rotten flesh has gotten pregnant without a husband. You don’t think people will laugh at me? The professor speaks big words but can’t control his own daughter?
Wil suddenly found herself playing both the daughter and the parent (in some instances) overnight. She attempts to find a husband for her now depressed and ostracized mother while juggling a relationship with Vivian who wonders why Wil has yet to come out into the open about her sexuality and ultimately their relationship. At the end, we discover that suddenly what was their world – Wil’s, Ma’s and Wai Gung’s – have all been turned upside down and the Flushing they knew became a little bit more in between Chinese and American.
Keeping up pretences for the sake of saving face. I’m sure we are familiar with the concept. We place what is right and what is wrong in two opposite corners and as with all Chinese families, whatever we do, reflects back on our parents. It is all fine and dandy if we share similar beliefs with Mum and Dad but when you’re gay and your parents aren’t, how do you tell them without risking a heart attack? When you love someone deeply enough to have his baby but can’t be together because society will look down upon you? Will you marry someone just to please Mum and Dad?
I think we have all gone through what Wil experienced in our own little way. We got that degree just for our parents, dated that girl/boy just for our parents, smile and act in this way just for our parents while we continuously pray for some form of salvation to come sweep us away from it all, this society of ‘saving face’, of right and wrong but nothing in between.
This film blows it all away – conventions, masks, and taboos – and brings to surface the realities of living an Asian life in a Western society. Realities of living a supposed Western lifestyle but with an Asian heritage. Questions like filial piety (addressed by the simple statement of “karmic retribution for not taking a mother in”), propriety (older women just don’t date or dress sexy), and love (men and women fall in love not women and women) are amongst the things challenged in the film. I watch with amusement as my two older movie companions talk about how ‘disgusting’ it was for a woman to have sex with another woman. When I mentioned about how it all boiled down to perception and individual preference, they – as like most Asian mothers around their age – went “But it’s unnatural and shameful”. Shame for loving someone? How can love itself be shameful? How I long to point to them that the world is ever changing and that some things can never be right or wrong but only in between.
Warning: This film has bits of nudity in it and if you’re homophobic, you might want to reconsider giving this film a miss. Otherwise, go watch something that will make you laugh, nod and say, “At least someone somewhere out there knows what I went through…” – namely this.