Facing Forward

With gay marriage and gay rights at the forefront of the political scene, a film that confronts these issues with subtlety and grace couldn't come at a better time. Luckily, Saving Face, by first-time filmmaker Alice Wu, opened in New York and Los Angeles this Memorial Day weekend. The first theatrically released film to feature an Asian-American lesbian couple, the film is an enormous triumph -- both for the Asian community and for Hollywood, which tends not to cast many Asian actors in principal roles.

The film's director and screenwriter, Wu judiciously avoided Hollywood's propensity to exaggerate homosexuality, which often renders gay characters phony and inaccessible to audiences. Instead, Wu presents a nuanced tale of two Asian-American women's contemporary experiences. She masterfully alternates between Wil (Michelle Krusiec), a single woman in her late 20s, and her 48-year-old mother, Ma (Joan Chen), both of whom are caught between their deep senses of cultural reverence and the consequences of breaking away from Old World values.

For example, as exhausting as Wil's life is as a surgeon, she feels compelled to make the trek from New York City to Flushing, Queens on Friday nights to attend the weekly dances hosted by the Chinese community, where she's forced to dance with single Chinese men prearranged by her interfering mother.

Ironically, it is at one such dance that she meets and immediately falls for a sexy ballet dancer named Vivian (Lynn Chen). Wil is fraught with a desire to be with Vivian, but even more, to hide her sexuality from Ma and her conservative relatives at all cost. It's not so easy for Wil to turn her back on what could be true love, however, and Vivian certainly makes her presence felt. Vivian represents a different kind of Chinese American woman; she is open-minded, independent, and yet she still respects her parents' wishes, even though she communicates openly with them about her lifestyle.

Meanwhile, Ma, who initially maintains a more traditional relationship with Wil, has scandalously become pregnant out of wedlock, and is ashamed by her pregnancy. To make matters worse, her father banishes her from his house, leaving Ma to move in with her daughter. Of course, Ma's pregnancy also diminishes her authority over Wil, and as the two live together, they basically become sisters, staying up late to watch Chinese soap operas and share takeout on the couch where they both sleep. Wu tugs at the chords between Ma and Wil, facilitating Ma's acceptance of her daughter's homosexuality while allowing Ma to come to terms with her own independence from her rigid heritage (she continues to speak in Chinese, even though she clearly understands English).

After the New York premiere of the film, Lynn Chen sat down with me to talk about her role as the lesbian love interest in Saving Face.

Can you describe how you felt as part of the first Asian American lesbian couple to be featured on the big screen?

When we first were doing this film, nobody knew that little factoid, so when we did find out--from a reporter at Sundance--we were all pleasantly surprised...it was very exciting that we were a part of a film that we did not even realize was so groundbreaking.

What was it like to work with Alice Wu, who was both a first-time director and first-time screenwriter?

In looking back actually, this past year, having seen a lot of films by first-time directors and having been on film sets, I could see how difficult it is to be a director and to be doing it for the first time, not ever having gone to film school. I think she did a tremendous job of being a leader -- she's a natural leader. And not only that; she's very grateful and humble, which is pleasant to be around. I just really trust her taste in general. So whatever she asked me to do, I did with a lot of confidence in her. At the same time, she was open to suggestions and always asked for my input, which, as an actor, is something that you always want from a director, to have that freedom.

Are you concerned about being typecast as a lesbian?

What's funny is that when I was in Nitestar [an HIV education theater company], I played a character named Vivian [coincidentally for another project] who tried to get her girlfriend to come out, and whenever we performed it for audiences that were mostly black and Latino, I always felt really uncomfortable playing this character because, for them, I was already the other. Seeing me as Asian and then also as a lesbian...that suddenly made me feel really different from all of them. I didn't want them to feel that they couldn't relate. I asked to stop playing that character for that reason. However, when we did shows in Chinatown or other areas with a large Asian population, I did want to play that role. When you think Asian, you usually don't think lesbian.

Now, I'm only concerned if it's only going to show the same story or these same sorts of characters...there are so many different types of people in the world, and being a lesbian is only one characteristic of one's personality -- or it may have nothing to do with your personality. Everyone is so different; so my only concern is if we're retelling the same story over and over again. Otherwise, I have no problem playing a lesbian again. But what's funny is that I've been in to audition for about a dozen roles that were lesbians. And it has nothing to do with Saving Face. It just so happens that today, writers have a lesbian as a side character, and so for purposes of diversity, they're more open-minded with the ethnicity for the role as well.

While this is the first film to feature an Asian American lesbian couple, it doesn't push an agenda on the audience. What do you make of that?

People had said to Alice that they wanted her to make it white, or they wanted her to make it Latino, and said 'Why does she [Wil] have to be a lesbian?' When Alice finished writing Saving Face, she was told, 'This is actually quite good. I could sell the story but could you make the characters white?' Or, 'Why couldn't you make the love interest a white man?' She said no, it has to be a lesbian.

Since Ma represents--at least at the beginning--the more conservative values of parents, what do you think of how the relationship played out between Ma and Wil?

I think that in Chinese families, in families in general, when you picture your parents, you picture them as all-knowing; they make no mistakes. Wil has been the perfect Chinese daughter to her mother in every way except for the fact that she's not going to marry a nice Chinese boy. It's when she sees that her mother is not perfect and has made pretty much the biggest mistake that a woman her age could make in that community, that's what makes her much more human and ultimately what brings them closer together, that realization that her mother is fallible.

How did your parents react to your role in Saving Face?

My parents were both fine. I've been told by Alice that my parents are very rare in that they're so open about homosexuality. Basically, they don't think there's anything wrong with it, so that's sort of how they looked at this role too. I wasn't afraid to tell them that; it was more the nudity thing.

Are you concerned about a general response from the Asian community?

Naively, I went into this thinking 'no big deal.' From what I hear, the Chinese press has been amazingly supportive, which is pretty incredible. Yet, the other day, an interviewer from the Chinese press grimaced whenever I said 'lesbian.' She had seen the movie and liked it, but she still was not okay with the idea of an actual woman liking another woman. It wasn't a reality to her.

Since gay marriage and gay rights are such a hot topic right now, how do you think Saving Face fits into that political discussion?

I think the main problem that conservatives in America have with gays in Hollywood is that they have helped to normalize homosexuality. This film is not extreme in any way. It's not jarring or in your face, so I think for most audiences that see this, they don't separate themselves from the characters in the same way they might with Queer Eye... or Will & Grace. This really humanizes it and these characters are a lot more relatable than other people you might see. Wil and Vivian are not your stereotypical, stock gay characters. Today's conservatives are trying to create and capitalize on hysteria over the 'gay agenda,' when in fact, the only agenda that gay people have is the human agenda: to love and be loved.

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