Saving Face is the story of the Pang family, whose patriarchal head, Wai Gung (Jim Wang), emigrated from mainland China during the infamous Cultural Revolution and has distinguished himself as a college professor. Like many immigrant families, the Pangs have emphasized hard work, higher education and tribal loyalty. Offspring are supposed to get advanced degrees that will command high salaries, remain respectful of the traditional values of their elders and marry Chinese. They are not supposed to get divorced, they are not supposed to get pregnant out of wedlock, and they are most certainly not supposed to have affairs with people of the same sex. Unfortunately, Wai Gung's offspring have committed all these transgressions, and he's not sure how to go about, well, saving face.
Wai Gung's family problems start with his 48-year-old daughter, Hwei Lan (the still absolutely ravishing Joan Chen, actually 44), who is divorced. Alas, she's also pregnant out of wedlock and refuses to reveal the identity of her sexual partner. We think she's keeping her lover a secret to protect him from her father's pressure to marry, but that's not entirely correct. In reaction to her pregnancy and the public embarrassment attached to it, Hwei Lan is depressed into inaction. She's made no decision about whether she's going to keep the child, or even if she's going to have it. In a sweet ironic twist, despite her own stubborn iconoclasm, Hwei Lan refuses to face the fact that her physician daughter, Wil (Michelle Krusiec), is a lesbian.
Though fictional and dramatic, Wu's film serves nicely as sociology, as an examination of how acculturation accelerates in each generation. Wai Gung speaks English with a heavy accent; his wife (Guang Lan Koh) seems not to have mastered the new language at all. Meanwhile, though she's lived most of her life in the United States, Hwei Lan has remained so isolated in the Chinese-American community that she seems most comfortable speaking her parents' native tongue. In contrast, Wil is 100 percent Americanized, in her speech, dress and attitudes. She may not want her family to find out, but she's completely comfortable in her private sexuality.
Almost inadvertently, Saving Face also illustrates the evolution of professional ambition in successive generations of immigrant families. Wil is a successful surgeon, just like her boss, Dr. Shing (Louyoung Wong), who is also third generation. Dr. Shing's fourth-generation daughter, Vivian (Lynn Chen), wants to make her mark in the arts. She's a ballet dancer. Then to make things deliciously complicated, Vivian becomes Wil's lover. Though obviously violating mores in their sexual preference practice, the young women have followed tradition by finding a Chinese mate.
Developments in Saving Face could probably use more edge. Wai Gung ostracizes Hwei Lan, and she subsequently does the same to Wil. But we never feel the ugliness in these banishments, nor do we ever believe they'll last. Indeed, Hwei Lan treats Wil's tiny apartment as a personal refuge and ping-pongs in and out so whimsically that it's hard to take any of her pronouncements about Wil's lifestyle very seriously. Wu obviously wants to maintain lightness in her storytelling. How else can we account for a scene in which Hwei Lan goes to a video store, passes over The Last Emperor (in which Joan Chen starred), and instead chooses a pornographic tape. I don't know what we're supposed to make of this decision since it doesn't seem consistent with Hwei Lan's personality. But it is funny. Nonetheless, in such instances, the director's touch is so feathery that it threatens to become weightless.
On the whole, though, Saving Face has something important to say, something at once celebratory and oddly sad. Immigrant families like the Pangs and the Shings come to the New World for a new beginning. But as they succeed, and the more they succeed, the more they lose the connections of family and culture that enabled them to succeed in the first place. Wil and Vivian may have Asian faces, but they are thoroughly American young women. They still speak Chinese, but one can barely imagine that the children of their heterosexual counterparts will be convinced to bother.