By Sakira Hermawan
When talking about representation, the lack of diversity in the Western film industry is apparent. As an Asian growing up appreciating movies from Hollywood, it never occurred to me that the figures and characters I’ve looked up to look nothing like me. Moving into my teenage years, my favorite genre quickly became romance and this was because I was a hopeless romantic. Despite the many romcoms I have watched, it was Alice Wu’s 2004 film, Saving Face, where I was able to see romance as more than just fantasy. Alice Wu is currently known as the director of the Netflix film, The Half of It, which tells the story of Ellie Chu and her exploration of friendship, sexuality, and love. The movie Saving Face parallels that coming-of-age theme with the addition of how Asian culture and family plays a role in exploration. While other movies could fulfill my brief desire to observe budding romance, Saving Face allowed me to see love relative to intersectionality.
This movie tells the story of Wil, a Chinese-American, and her widowed mother, Hwei-lan, who both carry their own romantic secrets. We quickly find out that Wil hides her lesbian relationship with a dancer, in fear of tainting the honor of her very traditional family. The story really picks up when the family finds out that the mother, Hwei-lan, has become pregnant, and refuses to share who the father is, leading to her eventual fall out with the rest of the family. Hwei-lan’s father banishes her from the house, unless she is able to find a respectable suitor to marry. Wil finds her mother on the doorsteps of her house and is forced to carry the responsibility of looking after Hwei-lan. Being that Wil wants her mother out of her house and Hwei-lan wants to bury her daughter’s sexuality, both characters are insistent in finding each other a reliable man, yet both are satisfied with not finding one.
Although Saving Face is indeed a funny and charming story, it does not shy away from the issues that manifest in many Asian families: the case of honor. Implied in the title, this movie is a tale of losing face in front of family and searching for a way to save face. This movie is about re envisioning what makes up family pride and re-envisioning how to gain the satisfaction of acceptance. In between the lines of the romance plot is the true message Alice Wu develops: the growth of familial love. While some might criticize how social issues are touched upon only superficially due to the sitcom atmosphere this movie yields, I argue that the lighthearted undertone makes the story accessible to more audiences. Keeping in mind that this film is almost two decades old, there is still much room for improvement when creating narratives of Asian focused intersectionality. For now, I think Saving Face is a catalyst for many discussions around
Asian issues and even future developments of Asian representation in the Western movie industry.