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Saving Face

(2005) ** 1/2 R
96 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Alice Wu. Cast: Joan Chen, Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen, Jessica Hecht, Li Zhiyu.

Saving Face—a likeable romantic comedy set in the Chinese-American community of Flushing, Queens—balances the vicissitudes of a lesbian relationship against a trying mother-daughter relationship. Writer-director Alice Wu mines the still-pumping vein of humor in the generation gap between meddling parents and petulant children.

Michelle Krusiec plays Wil, a twentysomething medical resident who's blindsided when her widowed mother (Joan Chen)—long assumed to be thoroughly conservative—announces that she's pregnant but won't be marrying the father, who she refuses to identify. Meanwhile, Wil keeps her own secret—a burgeoning relationship with a woman named Vivian (Lynn Chen)—from her intolerant mother. Wil is understandably defensive, as manic Ma deflects every question about her pregnancy with a criticism of Wil's lifestyle ("I see men's clothes are still in style"). Ma's a handler and, we later learn, hipper than she'd care to admit.

Wu plays off the title's implication that truth is problematic in hypocritically conservative and gossipy Chinese-American communities; in the movie's first scene, we see Wil wearing a cosmetic face mask pointedly given to her by her mother. Some roles are imposed from outside the community, as Ma discovers when she says "China" to a video clerk. She's directed to a section that includes only The Joy Luck Club, Chen's own The Last Emperor, and a huge sampling of porn.

Ma grudgingly submits to a series of blind dates, dramatized in a standard-issue montage of losers' one-liners topped off by Ma's punchline "If these are my dating options, I am definitely too old." The truth comes closer to a comment made by Vivian—a New York City Ballet dancer—about teaching younger dancers: "I'm teaching them to fall without hurting themselves." In the end, this is the lesson mother and daughter must teach each other. Ma needs her daughter's approval to think outside the box, just as Wil needs Ma's approval if she's ever to commit to a long-term relationship.

The affectionate ribbing of the cultural milieu and Joan Chen's sly performance raise this a cut above the indie formulas we expect from lesbian romances and "my crazy family" comedies. Though Saving Face is corny, it's also surprisingly zippy in its good humor.

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