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movie review ***

From a Computer Scientist, A Movie About Chinese Lesbians

By Kelley Rivoire

Saving Face

Directed and written by Alice Wu

Starring Michelle Krusiec, Joan Chen, and Lynn Chen

Rated R

Saving Face is a far cry from a typical summer movie, both in content and production. It’s the story of a young, lesbian Chinese-American doctor who struggles to balance interactions with a widowed, traditional, yet mysteriously pregnant mother and with a girlfriend who would like to push their secretive romance into a full-fledged relationship. Yet despite its rather unusual premise, Saving Face dwells in believable characters and subtleties of expression rather than typecast characters and flamboyant declarations.

Director and writer Alice Wu, herself a lesbian, briefly attended MIT before transferring to Stanford, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science. Wu quit her job at Microsoft to pursue her dream of becoming a screenwriter, giving herself five years to succeed. With Saving Face, she met her goal.

The characters in Saving Face, despite or perhaps because of their well-intentioned flaws, are without exception likeable. (In her director’s note, Wu writes that she is fascinated by “human ineptitude.”)

The young doctor, Wilhelmina Pang, played by Michelle Krusiec in her first lead movie role, tries to be everything to everyone — a hard-working doctor, a devoted daughter and granddaughter, and a conscientious girlfriend. Ultimately, the roles come into conflict, and Wil finds herself constantly disappointing someone. While hiding her sexual identity from her family, she disappoints her girlfriend; when revealing it, her family.

Her widowed mother, played by Joan Chen of The Last Emperor, likewise faces the prejudices of the Chinese community when she becomes pregnant but refuses to reveal the father’s identity. She soon finds herself alienated from her parents, moving in with her daughter. (She shows up on Wil’s door, armed with a vast supply of toilet paper — perhaps she encountered a sale en route? — and expects to be taken in.) Her family tries to fix her up with a husband so that her child will have a father, effectively forcing upon her what society demands rather than what she wants.

The third of the trio of leading ladies, Vivian Shing, played by Lynn Chen, differs from Wil and her mother. Vivian, a dancer, exudes confidence and self-assurance, and she finds herself frustrated by a girlfriend who can’t seem to commit to the relationship.

Like the characters themselves, the scenes demonstrate Wu’s perceptiveness in pinning down this natural “human ineptitude.” Often, we see Vivian and Wil sitting feet apart on a bench, each facing forward, showing the separation and awkwardness remaining between them. We see Wil and her mother in this same position, sitting on the couch, facing forward toward the television, rather than toward each other. In the interactions of all her characters, Wu masterfully captures this gap between what people think and would like to communicate, and what they can actually bring themselves to say and do.

Though seemingly heavy in subject material, the film is remarkably light-hearted, with many comedic exchanges. Though some of the laughs stem from Wu’s ability to recognize and recreate stereotypical Asian behaviors, Wu’s characterizations don’t seem either mean-spirited or ridiculously exaggerated. And she completely avoids any inclusion of stereotypical gay behaviors; while billed as a “comedy,” this certainly isn’t the Chinese, female version of Will and Grace.

Like its characters, this film isn’t perfect. The dialogue seems a bit unnatural at times, and picking up the subtleties of the script is difficult in the numerous exchanges that occur in Chinese. The feel-good, largely predictable ending tows the line of the realistic. But this film isn’t about methodically copying human reality; rather, it’s about keenly demonstrating what makes us human, across race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other demographic. With enjoyable characters and an unusual story, Saving Face charmingly reminds us of the inevitable foibles and stumbling blocks on the road to happiness in life and love.

‘Saving Face’ is playing at Loews on Church Street in Harvard Square.