Saving Face was Alice Wu’s baby–as you should know because I repeat it all the time–and she staunchly fought to retain so many of the elements that caused objections from producers and financiers: That it was a film like 50% in Mandarin, that all the leading ladies would be ethnically Chinese, that it would be pretty much her way or no way.
What took my breath away was that not only was Wu fearless to fight for all that, but that she was fearless in her (very personal) narrative. She opened a window into two very personal worlds: the Chinese American community and the life of a gay woman. Her willingness to unflinchingly put on display things like Hwei-Lan’s blatant racism (and microaggressive homophobia) took my breath away.
You might have heard of this show “Fresh Off the Boat” that’s airing now. I haven’t watched it. And part of that is because I have always felt that there’s a fine line between laughing at and laughing with. I may not agree with the views and behaviors I have seen in the Asian (American) community, but I also feel very protective of exposing that community to scorn and ridicule, because 1) I lived and grew up in it and 2) it’s still a world I interact with because, hello, parents. I don’t want those behaviors to be the butt of a joke for an outsider audience that doesn’t understand its depths, period, full-stop.
Which is why Hwei-Lan’s racism might make you go: Whoa.
But the beauty, again, of nearly an entire case of Chinese characters is that Hwei-Lan isn’t a token, singular Asian character who is suddenly a stand-in representative for all Asians. Rather, what happens, and what feels delightful to me with my background is that suddenly it feels like an inside joke. Not only is this a world I recognize, but it’s not presented purely for a laugh (though it is funny), it’s presented with insider critique.
In this case, Wil actively berates her mother for her racist remarks, calling out every ridiculous claim and comment.
And, oh my God, could I relate to Wil.
And that’s the beauty of this scene because its layers aren’t inaccurate because Alice Wu has clearly lived in this world, too: Jay who has no clue how to interact with Wil’s mother, who doesn’t speak English to him but speaks through Wil and also about Jay in Mandarin; Hwei-Lan who is being rude as all get out towards him but playing at nice with smiles; Wil, who is in the middle and understands all conversation and has to both berate her mother for her views and hide what her mother is saying from Jay.
Alice Wu could have been sitting across a table from me over a cup of tea telling me this story and I would have been nodding, “Yeah, yeah, I know!”
I’m not Chinese American, I’m Vietnamese American, and let’s make this distinction because 1) not all Asian ethnicities are the same and there’s quite a bit of inter-Asian racism, 2) not all Asian American experiences are the same, but 3) there’s often a lot of overlap so that in exchanging specific experiences, we see similarities. (I love to exchange such stories, by the way, because I enjoy trying to find how universal an “Asian” American experience is.)
Now, in another framing and from an outside view, it would be easy to point fingers at Hwei-Lan and dismiss her simply as racist, but 1) Wil’s presence reveals her views are outdated and exist in a generational divide and 2) because Hwei-Lan is a point-of-view character, we come to understand where she’s coming from as well, inhabiting for the most part a very closed, insular world. “My mother never leaves Flushing,” Wil says to her coworker. When Wil asks Vivian why Jenny never left even though the community ostracized her, Vivian fires back, “Where would she go?” The insularity helps fuel and sustain these prejudices–and, in turn, subjects the Chinese American (immigrant) community to the same stereotyping.
Again, we get further layers because the entire cast is Chinese: Hwei-Lan is a shade in which she speaks little English who is maybe lower middle class(?), as compared to Jenny, who speaks almost entirely in English, achieved probably upper middle class or upper class status with her doctor ex-husband, etc. Just as Wil and Vivian are different shades of the Chinese American first American-born gen–which is a beautiful thing in and of itself and I think I’ve already ranted about how wonderful this is. The dinner with Vivian, Wil, and Hwei-Lan operates on several levels of amazing, from Hwei-Lan’s dismissive judgments of Vivian and her preference for modern dance rather than ballet, to how Vivian struggles to communicate in a mishmash of Mandarin/English and the faux pas and the unspoken open secrets floating around in the room. A. Ma. Zing.
I love how casually and effortlessly Wu managed to layer all the commentary through simple presentation. The gossiping and the scrutiny of the Flushing Chinese community is the driving force behind the need to “save face.” Everyone’s watching everyone else to see if they will deviate from norms and expectations and the deviants are punished by being ostracized. See: Vivian’s mother.
But the prejudices of the old generation bleed into and motivate the next generation’s evolving understanding and even intolerance for that type of behavior. Vivian vowed to get out of Flushing as soon as she could. Wil, we see, won’t let her mother’s comments slide and, in fact, was Vivian’s little white knight when they were children, punishing bullies who were making fun of Vivian for her parents’ divorce.
Saving Face manages a snapshot of progress across generations without sacrificing the nuances or how change always butts up against the old. Hwei-Lan’s racism rubs Wil the wrong way, but that doesn’t preclude Wil from loving her–or from growing closer to her mother. At the same time, she can’t just erase that racism and ignorance from her mother’s attitude or thinking. It doesn’t stop Wil from trying, but it’s a battle perhaps never fully won. In the meanwhile, Wil has to learn about the person her mother is as well. And the little entryways for conversation that Wu finds by using media–particularly those long soap operatic Chinese series–is so great because it’s exactly that indirect manner that feels so right.