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Saving Face

Directed and written by Alice Wu

Starring Michelle Krusiec, Joan Chen, Lynn Chen

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Classification: PG

Rating: **½

Patterned after the comic stylings of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mambo Italiano, Saving Face fits squarely into that ethnic tradition intent on exploring the hyphenated space between Something and American. This time, the hyphen resides in Chinese-American, the characters live in New York, and, although our heroine is predictably caught between two cultures, she has at least settled on a single sex. The girl is a lesbian, and did I mention that her widowed mother happens to be pregnant out of wedlock? Hey, there are twists aplenty here, and even a few laughs. Not quite enough, but, these days, keep your expectations low and you can be thankful for small mercies.

Nearing 30, Wil Pang (Michelle Krusiec) is a rising young surgeon in Manhattan but a fish out of water in Queens, where she dutifully trudges every Friday to visit her grandparents and attend the weekly Chinese social. There, old biddies speaking Mandarin try to hook her up with nerdy accountants talking business. There too, she looks across a crowded room and locks eyes with the vivacious Vivian (Lynn Chen), a professional dancer pirouetting up her own career ladder. Sure enough, the doctor and the dancer are soon getting it on. But Wil is only partially out of the closet, while Vivian is keen to parade her pride through every living room -- expect amorous troubles ahead.

Meanwhile, the doc's fortysomething mother (Joan Chen) shows up at her apartment door one night, doubly burdened with a packed suitcase and a swollen belly. Yep, Ma is pregnant, and she ain't saying who the father is. Since it's assuredly not her late husband, the Chinese community has ostracized the poor woman, leaving her no recourse but to move in with Wil.

So, in a rather transparent reversal of roles, the good daughter offers sanctuary to her knocked-up mother, and even takes a hand in trying to marry her off to various suitors. As for the vexing subject of Wil's lesbianism, that issue also exists in a kind of cultural limbo -- between them, it's understood but never discussed.

Anyway, what with pulling long shifts at the hospital and longer faces with her mom, Wil is hard-pressed to give her relationship with Vivian the time and nurturing it needs. Expect more amorous troubles ahead, although not before the de rigueur guess-who's-coming-to-dinner scene, where the threesome's sweet-and-sour chatter proves a perfect condiment to the mushu pork.

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Actually, the chatter works throughout -- it's consistently the best part of the picture. As you might already have guessed, writer-director Alice Wu has fashioned an awfully busy plot, but she's able to lighten the narrative load with her dialogue. Whether it's the posturing slang of the English-speaking generation, or the formal vernacular of their Asian elders, Wu has a keen ear for the rhythm of speech, and much of the humour rests in the conversations' staccato beat -- in breezy put-downs and tossed-off asides and disgruntled mutterings. Like a lot of first-time directors, she shoots in short scenes, a jumpy habit that can often seem incoherent. But not here. With only a few exceptions (notably, the sequence when Wil finally opens up to her mother), Wu makes a virtue of brevity, while still managing to get a large ensemble cast all marching in the same comic direction.

So it's unfortunate that two key members of the cast let her down. Both Krusiec and Lynn Chen are intermittently guilty of mishandling her well-chosen words, delivering the lines stiffly and telegraphing their reactions broadly. Yet even this flaw is interesting, if only because it too reverses the norm. Typically, in today's ho-hum movies, the acting is stronger than the writing -- competent actors are a lot more plentiful than competent scripts. So there's almost a perverse pleasure in watching occasionally weak performers mar an essentially sound screenplay. That's the saving grace of Saving Face -- Wu gets the hard part right.

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