There's a scene in "Saving Face" in which Joan Chen, playing a pregnant character known only as "Ma," wanders into a video store on the Lower East Side and haltingly asks for the Chinese section. The clerk points the way, and Ma soon finds herself puzzling over titles such as "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Last Emperor." She settles on some Chinese porn, either because her life has become unrecognizable anyway and, whatever, she might as well; or because any Chinese is better than not understanding what the characters are saying.
Ma is a foreigner in Manhattan. She comes from Flushing in Queens, an insular immigrant community her daughter Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec) and coevals refer to as "Planet China." She's 48, long widowed and recently banished from her home by her traditional father (Jin Wang) for being pregnant and refusing to name the father of the child. With nowhere else to go, the sheltered Ma moves in with Wil, whose different sides -- workaholic surgeon, Chinese daughter, lesbian -- haven't really coalesced into a life yet.
"Saving Face" deals with familiar subject matter that has been pretty well and tritely trammeled already. But Alice Wu's debut film is so deft, natural and exquisitely specific, it feels fresh. A former computer programmer, Wu writes like she's been doing it for years, and "Saving Face" avoids the pitfalls of many of the coming-out, coming-of-age and coming-to-terms-with-your-family movies popular with first-timers. The film is sweet without being saccharine, wry without being cynical and unabashedly romantic without being cloying or disingenuous.
Just before Ma moves in, Wil meets a beautiful dancer named Vivian (Lynn Chen) at one of the Chinese socials her mother is forever dragging her to, trying to fix her up with a suitable Chinese bachelor. The socials also give the old coots and biddies in attendance an excuse to dish viciously about so-and-so's divorce and so-and-so's remarriage to a woman 20 years younger. "My back hurts just thinking about it," deadpans Mr. Cho (Nathanael Geng), who has been secretly in love with Ma for years. Wu's sharp eye for social satire captures every nuance of the way people hide behind tradition and convention to ventilate envy and spite, and she does it with a wry sense of humor that's as loving as it is ruthless.
Vivian is also Chinese but much more of a free spirit. Her parents are divorced and not as traditional as Wil's family. The fact that her father happens to be Wil's boss strikes her as far more amusing than horrifying. For Wil, however, the convergence of these events is more than she can handle, and the relationship suffers. The relationship between Vivian and Wil is charming, but the movie belongs to Ma, who had resigned herself to the life of an old woman long before it was necessary.
With Vivian's help, Wil sets out to fix her mother up with a suitable Chinese bachelor, and the scene in which Ma fretfully prepares for her first date -- she puts on a severe black dress more appropriate for a funeral -- is a poignant study in parent-child role reversal. Ma is a wonderful character, as charming as she is infuriating, and as soulful as she is intransigent, and Chen takes us through her coming into her own stealthily, with a quiet force and a light touch. Wu has said in interviews that the film was intended as a love letter to her mother, and it shows.
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality and language
Times guidelines: Some nudity, but the strict rating seems over-the-top
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Alice Wu. Producers Teddy Zee, James Lassiter, Will Smith. Executive producers John Penotti, Robin O'Hara, Scott Macauley. Screenplay by Alice Wu. Director of photography Harlan Bosmajian. Editor Susan Graef. Costume designer Jill Newell. Music Anton Sanko. Production designer Dan Ouellette. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.