Re: [Yuricon] Re: Saving Face Premier in SF June 3rd and June 4th
- An article from today's SF Chronicle about "Saving Face" and Director Alice Wu:
Alice in Indieland
"Saving Face" director Alice Wu comes out as a computer geek turned
hot property filmmaker
- by Jeff Yang, special to SF Gate
Thursday, June 2, 2005
NEW YORK -- It's Sunday afternoon on Memorial Day weekend, and Alice
Wu, director of the new romantic comedy Saving Face, is sitting in the
Angelika Theater, Manhattan's pre-eminent venue for art-house cinema,
waiting for her closeup.
"It's all been very strange for me," she says. "For a number of weeks,
I've done nothing but talk about my film and myself. And it's weird to
start seeing the articles coming out now. I know we need the
publicity, but all this focus on my life, on myself -- it verges on
the surreal. Still, it's hard to complain about feeling awkward,
because the fact that anyone is interested in writing about my film is
a small miracle itself. I mean, it's almost like, 'Thank God I'm
having this problem.'"
The problem, if you can call it that, is that in the space of a year
and a half, Wu has gone from being a blissfully anonymous aspiring
screenwriter with an acclaimed but unproduced debut script to a hot
indie filmmaker pinned square in the glare of the media spotlight.
Thursday, Seattle. Sunday, New York. Tuesday, San Francisco. Multiple
publicists. Back-to-back appearances. A torrent of previews and candid
profiles. Welcome to the other side of the looking glass, Alice.
The hubbub and hullabaloo is in large part a reflection of the kind of
movie Wu has made -- that is to say, a throwback film with a sharply
contemporary twist. Saving Face (which opens at the Embarcadero
tomorrow) is a movie where lovers meet cute and dance the fumbling
tango of attraction and miscommunication until sparks fly and
fireworks flash. It's a movie where parents and children tumble
headlong into the generational divide, only to build a fragile bridge
of understanding across it. Wu herself refers to it as a "screwball
romantic comedy" in the grand tradition of Cary Grant and Katharine
Hepburn -- that is, if Grant happened to be a not-quite-out lesbian
cosmetic surgeon and Hepburn her enigmatic ballerina flame.
Toss in the fact that the protagonist's fortysomething, widowed mom
has shown up on her doorstep, unexpectedly pregnant by who knows whom;
roll the whole thing up in the insular Chinese-immigrant community of
Flushing, Queens and you have a recipe for a tasty and convenient dish
by any pop scribe's standards.
Critics are falling all over themselves to dub the movie "Bend It Like
My Big Fat Greek Wedding Banquet," which means Wu has faced a litany
of questions that would be familiar to filmmakers whose movies are
referenced in that catch-all title. The most common one is also the
most personal: Just how autobiographical is this film, anyway?
All in the Family
"Number one, I didn't grow up in Flushing," Wu says. (She's a Bay Area
girl, actually, born and bred.) "Number two, I'm not a doctor -- much
to my parents' dismay. And, number three, my mom's not pregnant."
On the other hand, she is an only child, her not-pregnant mom is on
her own (her parents are separated) and when she was in her late 40s,
her mother was indeed trying to find her way in a confusing single
world. "That's actually the reason I wrote this film," says Wu. "I was
thinking a lot about my mom, who was on the cusp of her 50s, and who
was treating her life like nothing new or exciting could ever happen
to her again, other than me getting married and having kids. Which
wasn't going to happen anytime soon. And I really wanted my mom to
feel like she could fall in love. I wanted her to feel like it's never
too late to have that second or third chance."
As in all too many Asian-American families, love as a concept just
didn't come up in Wu's household. "My parents got married so young,
and they never really had the chance to fall in love. And we never
talked about loving each other, either. It's not like I didn't love my
parents, or didn't think they loved me -- that was not in any doubt.
But it was just one of those things that we never said. It's an Asian
And so, "Saving Face." "I wanted to tell my mom what I felt about her,
and I couldn't call her up and say it to her directly. In a weird way,
I guess I thought the only way I could tell her was to show it. A
friend of mine who saw the movie said to me, 'God, the movie was
terrific, but couldn't you have just told your mom you love her?'
Until I heard that, it hadn't really occurred to me that that's what
this whole project was about -- a love letter to my mom" -- who, after
Wu came out to her during a college Thanksgiving break, didn't speak
to her for two years.
Coming Out Times Three
Wu points out that the film really has three separate yet intertwined
love stories: the mom's, the daughter and her girlfriend's and the mom
and the daughter's. As with all love stories, their resolution depends
first on loss -- because you can't have a happy ending without risking
everything that's precious in your life. You have to blow it all up
before rebuilding -- that's the only way you can find out who you
really are. In effect, the love stories of "Saving Face" are also, at
their heart, coming-out stories -- both Wil and her mother come out as
sexual beings to the world, and they come out as emotional beings to
one another, breaking down the wall of silence and repression that
prevents them from truly and honestly embracing one another.
The whole coming-out issue is the other part of what has made the
media whirl such an odd experience for Wu -- who's now watching as
intimate details about her life and career and family unfurl, black
and white and read all over.
It's not just the lesbian thing -- Wu, now 35, has been out for years.
(Though she admitted she had a discussion with her mom before the
movie was released about what its impact would be in their social
circle. "I said, 'Come on, Mom, your friends must have figured out I'm
gay by now,' and she was, like, 'No, they just think you're a very
busy career woman.' And she's right. I found out that they've totally
bought that for, like, 30 years. The whole time, they just assumed
that I'm so on the go that I never had time to date.")
It's also the Asian-American thing. Because part of the media's whole
packaging process is to distill people and phenomena into McNuggets of
identity, Wu's Asian-American-ness has been as central to how the film
is being covered as her sexual orientation. The weirdness comes not
from hesitation at being pigeonholed, but, rather, that being Asian
has always been such a big part of who she is that it's strange to her
it's even news.
"It's like, 'What's the big deal?'" she says. "I totally embrace being
Asian American and being lesbian. I've never been afraid of being put
in those categories, because I feel like the fact that I'm an
Asian-American filmmaker or a gay filmmaker doesn't change the fact
that I can write any story I want. And, ultimately, this is a movie
about relationships, which I think are universal, across color, race,
sexual orientation. But I'm totally cognizant that not many
Asian-American films even get distributed, so I understand that that's
the angle people are coming from, and that's fine with me."
That's fine because Wu knows there's a real need for more
Asian-American creatives to come out of the closet as Asian American.
"People assume that we're the Model Minority, that it's so easy for us
-- that, in a weird way, we can 'pass,'" she says. "And yet, we can't.
The reality is, hell, my last name is Wu, and as a result, elementary
school was not fun. In third grade, I remember that we all had to
write these stories to read in front of the class, and this kid wrote
this story, and it was all about Alice Woo-Woo, the Playboy Bunny. I
still remember the neighborhood kids saying things like, 'Why don't
you just get back on the boat you came in on?'" (It would have been a
short trip -- Wu was born in San Jose.)
So, in the course of "Saving Face"'s release, Wu has actively set out
to affirm her roots in the Asian-American community. She pushed Sony
Classics to premiere the film at the National Asian American
Telecommunications Association's San Francisco Asian American
International Film Festival, rather than the much bigger "mainstream"
venue of the San Francisco International Film Festival. ("It wasn't a
fight so much as a kind of heavy debate. I told them that I really
need to do the SFAAIFF, because NAATA is so amazingly supportive of us
Asian-American filmmakers. And Sony, to their credit, said, 'It really
doesn't work for our marketing plan, but if you feel that strongly
about it, we'll do that festival.'")
And despite her preference to stay out of the limelight, she's packed
her schedule with Q&As, where she can stand in front of audiences,
many of them Asian American, and explain why and how a self-proclaimed
computer science geek and ex-Microsoft exec was able to accidentally
and fortunately tumble into filmmaking. "If there's another aspiring
Asian-American director listening who says, 'Wow, that Alice Wu, she
managed to do that, and that makes me, as an Asian American, feel like
I can do that,' that's the goal."
Back at the Angelika, Wu's latest Q&A is about to begin. She's gone
mostly unnoticed while sitting in the theater's small café, a brief
and pleasurable respite from all the nonstop attention. "I don't like
being recognized, really; the best thing of having a cast with three
beautiful actors is that no one wants to look at you. They're all
like, 'Oh, can you introduce me to Joan [Chen]?'" (Wu does note,
however, that these days, after Q&As, she gets mothers coming up to
her to try to set her up -- with their daughters.)
"I kind of cherish that anonymity; that's the best thing about being a
writer," she says. The process of writing fiction provides a kind of
intimate distance; it gives authors control over their identity --
allowing them to reveal themselves in a way that's selective, complex,
nuanced. Ultimately, the process might actually be more honest than
"I always say, if you want to get to know someone, read their novel,
not their journal," says Wu. "Because we're masters of lying to
ourselves. An author friend of mine recently told me that she
discovered these journals she wrote in high school, and she was so
excited. She's in her 40s now, and she was thinking, 'Finally, I'm
going to read this, and all this stuff will be revealed to me about
myself.' And she read them, and she said to me, 'You know, it's a
little bit like finding undiscovered film footage of the Battle of
Waterloo, then realizing that a monkey was holding the camera: lots of
shots of bananas, no Napoleon.'"
And with that, the theater manager summons her for her next
appearance, a curtain call to step into the limelight, to answer
questions, to come out in public again.
* * * *
Next week, I'll begin consistently contributing to this space every
two weeks in a new column on Asian pop culture. Part of what makes
this so exciting is that it's an opportunity to frame a longer-term,
ongoing discussion -- one that hopefully will include your comments,
your feedback and your ideas. E-mail me at yangasianpop@...,
and share your thoughts (yeah, critical ones included), and I'll run
the most interesting and incisive ones right here, as part of a
regular postscript to the ongoing column. To kick off this feature,
let me know whether you have any questions you'd like to pass along to
Alice Wu; I'll pick the three most interesting ones, and her answers
will appear next week, right here.
Until then, here's a quick note to urge you to check out "Saving Face"
when it debuts here in the Bay Area this weekend. You've probably
already gotten an e-mail from a friend (the grassroots word of mouth
on the film has extended its tendrils with amazing breadth and speed),
but, if not, here's the deal: Wu's directing is artful and remarkably
assured for a first-time filmmaker, and she writes snap-crackle-pop
dialogue that'll have you nodding with recognition when you're not
laughing out loud. The performances, particularly those of the three
female leads, are charming and heartfelt, with Joan Chen showing a
remarkably deft comic touch as Wil's bun-in-the-oven mom.
So, see it to watch a canny veteran actress and two bright young
ingenues at the top of their game. See it because the romantic comedy
section of the Asian-American cinema shelf is about three films deep,
and ours is a community that needs to wear our hearts on our sleeves
Or, well, see it because two gorgeous young women have a frankly hot
love scene that had me rubbing the steam off my spectacles.
As Wu says herself, it's got a little something for everyone. So,
yeah, check it out.
Jeff Yang is author of "Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the
Cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China" (Atria Books) and
co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" (Ballantine) and
"Eastern Standard Time" (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin). He lives in New
- Looks like there will be a bunch of people (not Yuricon-related
though) going to the Embarcadero Center Cinema for the 7.20pm show.
arcadero_center_cinema.html)for those who are interested.
People are recommending buying the tickets online prior to going to
I am personally waiting for the movie to open in the peninsula/south
bay plus work is too distracting right now...