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July 1, 2005

Facing the future

A grown-up comedy about an unusual family dilemma

Actresses, especially those who start off in glamorous, sexy roles, have a hard time of it in Hollywood.

The looks might not fade much, but a crow’s foot can be as deadly as a bullet for an actress’ career.

Some segue into directing, or take bit parts in B movies until they can triumphantly return as someone’s mother.

Witness the gorgeous Joan Chen. She made waves on Twin Peaks as Josie Packard and had a string of roles after that, before seemingly vanishing five years ago.

However, while she wasn’t particularly visible, her hand could be felt as she directed a film in her native China, as well as the Richard Gere film Autumn in New York.

Now, however, she is venturing back in front of the business end of the camera, starring in lesbian software programmer-turned-indie director Alice Wu’s Saving Face, now hitting the art-house circuit.

Chen plays Ma, Wil Pang’s (Michelle Krusiec) mother. Of course, audiences should ignore the fact that if Chen really were Krusiec’s mother, she would have given birth at age 13.

Wil has a good life. She’s a successful surgeon, has a gorgeous dancer girlfriend, and still manages to visit her family on a weekly basis, as any good Chinese-American daughter should.

However, her life begins to unravel when her widowed mother shows up on her doorstep.

A visit from Mom can be stressful for any gay or lesbian child, especially an unannounced visit. But when it turns out that her widowed mother is pregnant, Wil must really brace herself for the implications.

In Chinese society, especially among immigrant communities in the United States, an unwed woman does not get pregnant.

So it falls to Wil to find her mother a husband while keeping Vivian, her girlfriend, placated. She also is faced with the choice of shattering the expectations placed upon her or losing the woman she loves.

“I am fascinated by human ineptitude,” writer-director Alice Wu says. “I rarely see the world in terms of good and evil, right or wrong; I think most people strive to do the right thing.”

“That the ‘right thing’ is so often wrong is uncanny, sometimes tragic, and often very, very funny,” she continues. “My favorite stories arise from good-but-flawed characters trying desperately to do what each believes is best for a given situation--and the situation keeps getting worse.”

“There is a moment in Saving Face when the daughter sees her mother’s vulnerability for the first time,” she notes. “The mother has staunchly refused to go on the blind date her daughter has procured. The daughter responds by trying to railroad the mother into getting ready. She is certain the situation can be fixed by getting Mom into the right dress, the right hair.”

“The more the daughter tries to fix things, the worse it gets,” Wu admits. “What her mother secretly wants is reassurance. She’s scared. The situation is comic.”

It’s the humanity at the heart of the scene that is the most important to Wu.

“Does the daughter care? Yes. Is she trying to do the right thing? Certainly. Does it work? No,” she asserts. “Only when she throws up her hands and surrenders does the truth come out, and with it, the connection both women have been subconsciously seeking.”

Of course, the title Saving Face has multiple meanings; Wu is fond of subtext.

In addition to the obvious Asian concept of upholding honor, Wil specializes in reconstructive surgery, saving people’s faces after accidents. Ma is an aesthetician at a salon, saving people’s faces simply from what nature gave them.

But more than anything to do with appearance or honor, the film is about love.

“I suppose if there is one thing I am trying to say with the film, it is that no matter who you are--Asian or black, gay or straight, young or old--that everyone basically wants to love, and that opportunity can start at any point in your life that you want it to,” she concludes. “I made Saving Face because I wanted my mother to know that it was never too late to fall in love for the first time, and that it is not by doing things right, but by sometimes getting them wrong, that we launch the journey that allows us to come into our own.”

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