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Screens One crowded closet 

Everyone in the gay rom-com 'Saving Face' has a secret

Ah, love. Is it not complicated enough without a well-meaning but judgmental grandfather and a knocked-up 48-year-old mother who insists that you live by the ways of the old country even though she knows darn well you're in love with the ballet dancer? Saving Face, the directorial debut by Alice Wu, who based the screenplay on her own coming-out experience, answers the question with a nod to the gentle TV screwball comedies of the '60s and '70s.

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Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen portray young, Chinese-American professionals in love in Alice Wu's directorial debut, Saving Face.

The opening credits of the movie are set against Manhattan's gritty skyline and scored with a jazzy riff that recalls The Odd Couple or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, both dead-on references for our heroine's plight. Wilhelmina is an up-and-coming surgeon whose family dotes upon her, the only child and grandchild of a widowed mother and first-generation Chinese grandparents, respectively. The world would seem to be at her feet, but she can't toss her hat into the air with carefree abandon as Mary Tyler Moore did at the beginning of each episode. Not content with Wil's professional success, Ma drags her recalcitrant daughter to Chinese society dances where her grandmother compliments Wil's sensible shoes and Wil falls madly in mutual love at first sight with Vivian. Glamorous Vivian plays the self-assured suitor to the mostly closeted Wil, but just as things get cooking, the beautiful Ma's pregnancy is found out. When Grandpa boots her out of the house, she moves in with her daughter and proceeds to redecorate, cook traditional food, and insult Wil's best friend and love interest in turn.

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Joan Chen is the lead character's Ma, whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy at age 48 forces her to move in with her lesbian daughter.

Kept secrets drive the plot. Ma won't reveal the father's identity, and Wil's and Grandpa's efforts to find a suitable husband for the morose mother-to-be are the height of dark comedy. Wil won't tell her mother about Vivian although Ma and Vivian's father - who just happens to be Wil's boss - are too sharp to miss the signals. "Most people don't want to hear the truth until after lunch," Old Yu the fortune-teller tells Grandpa, who replies, "Fate is for the lazy." The question central to Saving Face is whether these honorable daughters will determine their destiny even if it costs their families "face," or honor.

Saving Face is far from a perfect film. As is often the case in comedies, many of the characters are mere sketches, although they are largely salvaged here by fine acting, and in the case of Vivian, by actress Lynn Chen's screen presence. But as Wu's invocation of The Graduate in one of the film's funniest scenes indicates, this is an American story that is repeated by generations of immigrants' children, who must continually remind their elders that the price of a new world is a new world order.

By Elaine Wolff

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October 21, 2020

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