There’s a distinct style of comedy cinema that’s rooted more in the humor of recognition than it is in the intricate construction of a punchline or bit. It’s a mode of humor that’s more likely to make you say, “That’s so true!” than it is to double you over with laughter. That humorous recognition of truth is usually tied to a highly specific cultural or economic backdrop so that it can hinge its observations on minute details & personal experiences. Sometimes these hyper-specific cultural narratives can break through to a larger audience by tapping into universally relatable truths, as was the case with last year’s Pakistani-American medical dramedy The Big Sick. Sometimes they’re unfairly forgotten or buried by the larger public on the face value of their surface details, as seemed to be the case with black, lesbian political meta-comedy The Watermelon Woman. 2004’s Saving Face appears to fall halfway between those two points. It experienced neither the breakout success of The Big Sick, nor the hellish distribution limbo of The Watermelon Woman. It’s just as culturally & personally specific as either work, though, detailing the sexual & romantic follies of two generations of Chinese-American women living in New York City. Saving Face builds its narrative tension around a mother-daughter relationship as the two women struggle to reconcile their private sexuality with their public personas & the cultural norms within their conservative Chinese-American community. Constantly referencing soap operas for context, it’s a movie that is not at all afraid of grand gestures of drama & sentimentality. Mostly, though, it’s mostly a personal, culturally specific comedy of recognition, where humor is mined more from observations of miniscule, real-life details than it is from over-the-top scenarios or dialogue.
A middle-aged mother strives to improve her adult children’s lives even though her son is a successful businessman and her daughter is a skilled, in-demand surgeon. She intends on making her daughter’s social status more respectable by essentially arranging her marriage to a series of ill-fitting men who frequent their community’s regular soirees. Two crises within these women’s lives flip this power dynamic in time: the daughter is a closeted lesbian who has zero romantic interest in her mother’s proposed beaus and the mother becomes pregnant outside of wedlock, which excommunicates her from their traditionalist, conservative community. Both women struggle with maintaining privacy & social decorum in the tension between their private relationships & their public personas. The daughter falls in love with a dancer who pressures her to find the courage to come out. The mother keeps the identity of her unborn child’s father a secret as she struggles to adjust to a more independent NYC lifestyle. The daughter even reverses their original dynamic by setting her mother up on dates with men whom she has no interest in. The whole thing blows up in soap opera-worthy displays of sentimentality at both a wedding & an airport before sweetly settling on a position of “Fuck ‘em,” with the two women resolving to live as their true selves with confidence instead of fretting over public condemnation. Their self-confidence and their familiar relationship are stronger for the crisis. Their community is also given more of an impetus to catch up with the evolving morals of modern life. The dramatic struggles of Saving Face are mostly intimate & insular before their climactic soap opera blow-ups and the whole move is guided by a subtle, empathetic hand as two-well-defined female characters learn how to become their best possible selves. It’s endearing.
It’s no surprise to learn that writer-director Alice Wu based much of Saving Face off her own personal experiences with coming out as lesbian in her Chinese-American community. This is the kind of delicately comedic, occasionally sentimental work that requires highly specific personal & cultural details at the margins to resonate with an audience. I don’t intend to suggest that it’s entirely stylistically muted either. An occasional eccentric reaction shot or the mother telling her daughter things like, “Had I known you would be so ungrateful, I would have held you in” punches up the comedy beats. Grand romantic gestures at the climax and touches like a tender sex scene set to a Cat Power ballad anchor the dramatic end as well. A scene where the daughter finally verbalizes her hidden sexual orientation to her mother, who was already reluctantly aware of it as a kind of open secret, is especially complex in its dramatic tones (as well as being an incredibly well-handled exchange between actors Joan Chen & Michelle Krusiec). For the most part, though, Saving Face’s dramatic and comedic beats impress in the way they ring true to real life detail & lived experience. It’s a type of comedy that sometimes breaks through to find mass appeal, but is much more significant in the way it offers representation to communities that aren’t used to seeing themselves visible onscreen. I’m sure there’s a Chinese-American lesbian out there in a major US city with an early 00s coming out story very similar to Wu’s, for whom this is the greatest, most relatable film ever made. It’s a kind of personal touch we could stand to champion more prominently as audiences, even if it isn’t nearly as flashy as more traditional, over-the-top comedies.