Director Alice Wu’s Saving Face is a loving ode to Chinese culture and the ways it enriches our experiences of sexuality. Within the context where white representation remains the default in queer cinema, Wu’s film is a refreshing take on how Chinese-American lesbians navigate romance and the quintessential cornerstone of Chinese values: filial piety.
The film traces the love affair between Wil and Vivian. While Wil has come out to her mother Hwei-Lan years ago, her mother continues to set her up with men. It is tempting to see this as a complete disavowal of Wil’s lesbianism — white queer narratives are dependent on a polarising dichotomy of acceptance or nothing at all. The intricacies of cultural and familial dynamics that reside in-between are often erased. In this regard, Saving Face opts for an empathetic understanding of Chinese mothers. Wil’s mother loves her fiercely. Since there is no father in the picture, the two women rely on each other to live, work, and survive. Dinner is always cooked and shared — food is integral to a Chinese expression of love — telling us that both mother and daughter are tightly bound by their love for each other.
Wil is willing to live with her mother’s denial of her sexuality, because she understands that Hwei-Lan loves her above all else, and could never feel otherwise. To this end, Saving Face articulates a deeply Chinese tradition of filial piety and reconciles it with our dominant understandings of how sexuality should be accepted. Acceptance and love need not involve loud proclamations. It could be as simple as cooking dinner daily. Towards the end of the film, Hwei-Lan tells Wil: “Actually, Vivian seems great. Do you really like her?” It may not be an explicit acceptance of her sexuality — Chinese parents are quite restrained with expressing love with words — but it certainly speaks volumes.