Lesbian writer-director Alice Wu is off to an assured, delightful start with her debut feature, Saving Face, an ethnic 'dramedy' with romance that she says closely mirrors her own coming out process. The film, starring the preternaturally beautiful Joan Chen and a talented cast of Chinese-Americans, opens this Friday at the Landmark Century. It's a nice respite from all the light sabers, bat cowls and aliens crowding the Cineplex as the summer season is kicking into high gear and its marketers know it—'It Is Never Too Late To Fall In Love For The First Time' is the film's canny tagline. Translation: this one ain't for teenage boys.
From the beginning of the movies, ethnic comedies have worked and reworked their preferred theme of having their protagonist ( male or female ) fall in love with someone outside the narrow perimeters of their cultural background. Gays and lesbians, due to their outsider status and empirical understanding of others facing similar conflicts, are a built-in audience for these pictures. Introducing gay sexuality to the ethnic or religious taboo confines being shattered brings yet another layer to these movies, keeping them vital.
Just a few years old, to site a prominent example, My Big, Fat Greek Wedding seems clichéd in the extreme while director Wayne Wang's The Wedding Banquet from 12 years ago still seems fresh. That's actually not a fair comparison—Greek Wedding scored its big laughs in the Carol Burnett, Tony-n-Tina's Wedding parody style and never seemed anywhere close to reality. Wedding Banquet, on the other hand, and now, Saving Face, concentrate on the humor within the character first and the Neil Simon one-liners and site gags last. These little movies are never going to be gut busting big money hits like Big, Fat Wedding and Meet the Fockers were, but they're ultimately a lot more satisfying.
Saving Face is the story of Wilhelmina 'Wil' Pang ( Michelle Krusiec ) , who each Friday takes time out of her busy career as a surgeon to attend the Chinese socials at the behest of her widowed mother, 'Ma' ( Chen ) . Though Ma is obviously proud of Wil, she and the rest of her family want her married and Wil dutifully tries to please her, going along with the dreadful men that Ma keeps lining up. At one of the dances, however, Wil spots the bewitching Vivian ( Lynn Chen—no relation to Joan ) and from that point on all bets are off. Though Wil has quickly hidden her attraction, Vivian, a professional ballet dancer, has caught The Look and begins to court the hesitant Wil, who has always put career over love.
Meanwhile, Ma reveals a secret of her own: she's pregnant and refuses to reveal the father's name. After being kicked out of the house by her disapproving father and mother, where Ma had returned to live after being widowed, she moves in with Wil, who's falling under Vivian's spell.
This being an ethnic comedy, a host of complications ensue as all the characters seem to be looking for love in all the wrong places. At times the picture threatens to drown in all the melodrama, but Wu's genial pacing and a good cast make the twists and turns easier to swallow. Krusiec and the still stunning Chen match up beautifully in their scenes together as daughter and mother, with Wil forever exasperated with her disapproving, cautious mother. Wu takes the time to let us see the changes in both the characters and their gradual loosening of their predetermined roles. Wil's journey, especially, is quite heartening as she learns to stop and smell the roses and literally understand the simple power of a kiss.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the picture does at times seem to be a lesbian version of The Wedding Banquet or a Chinese-American Moonstruck. But Wu's got enough originality and assurance to brush off the comparisons. This is certainly a debut she'll want to screen for her mother. www.landmarktheatres.com
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is like a teenage version of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and all those other pictures based on books that are meant to empower women with their mother-daughter themes. How to Make an American Quilt, Fried Green Tomatoes, and The Joy Luck Club are just a few other examples of this genre. Love! Valour! Compassion! and The Broken Hearts Club seem to be gay versions of these female empowerment movies, but aren't nearly as satisfying.
All of these movies are of a piece and all were based on books. This genre is now being supplanted by the coarser, wittier, more urbanized 'chick lit' books—none of which are going to transfer to the screen nearly as well as Sisterhood has. Sisterhood books and their movie counterparts ( much more important for me ) are the equivalent of a nice, two-hour bath with the glowing scented candles and perfumed hot water and I can watch them over and over again, unflaggingly. I hear my inner voice subconsciously commanding me as they begin, 'Calgon, take me away' and I let the 'life lessons' do their stuff. It's pointless for me to resist these pictures, I have learned, and all they have to 'teach' me. I luxuriate in their homespun homilies and clichéd 'characters' and eagerly await the next all-star Sisterhood installment.
Transferring the Sisterhood idea to teenagers in Traveling Pants is a great one, the picture follows the rules of the genre and goes down easy enough. Seeing the formula so successfully applied to teenage girls, however, I'm now even more eager to see it transferred to gays and lesbians. Anyone else ready for Fried Green Tomato Dykes and Absolutely Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Brotherhood?
The Gene Siskel Film Center continues a month-long celebration of the mad genius of choreographer-director Busby Berkeley with Sunday matinees. Gold Diggers of 1933 with the fabulous Joan Blondell and the earnest Ruby Keeler screens this Sunday, the 12th while Footlight Parade, Dames, and Berkeley's greatest, Gold Diggers of 1935 ( with the eye-popping 'Lullaby of Broadway' ) follow in subsequent weeks. None of these classics are available on DVD and are revelatory on the big screen. Additional screening dates and complete info at www.siskelfilmcenter.com .