This LGBTQ+ History Month, we’re asking writers to reflect on a moment in queer pop culture history that has allowed them to experience queer liberation in their own lives. Check out our coverage here.
Long before the commercial success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Shang Chi,” “Fire Island,” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” heralded a new age of Asian representation in Hollywood, Alice Wu’s “Saving Face” paved the way for queer Asian visibility in 2004.
Last year, when I watched the film for the first time, I had a vague inkling that I aspired to become a screenwriter and filmmaker. I had taken a few screenwriting classes through a nonprofit arts organization, but I felt deep insecurity that the subjects that I was writing about – my American-born Chinese experience of being queer in an ethno-burb in Los Angeles – were too specific and too esoteric to be relevant to any audience.
But I saw my story in the main character, Wil (Michelle Krusiec), ostensibly the perfect Chinese American daughter who was a talented surgeon in New York City – except for the fact that she is a lesbian. Every week, she dodges her mother’s persistent efforts to match her with another Chinese boy from Flushing, Queens.
“Watching ‘Saving Face’ felt like a miracle gifted to my muse and craft.”
The film was an unlikely feat for its time when it was released in the early 2000s (produced by Will Smith, no less). Wu had never attended film school; this was her first pass at being an auteur, writing and directing an original screenplay. A significant portion of the film relies on captions to relay dialogue to an American audience as an almost all-Asian cast speaks a mix of English interspersed with Chinese dialects like Mandarin and Shanghainese. And despite studio campaigns to push her project towards an assimilation of whiteness, including casting the love interest to be a white American woman, Wu pushed back and made this film a star-crossed lesbian story about two queer Chinese American women – a surgeon and professional dancer – who fall in love.
The seminal lesbian television show “The L Word” had begun earlier that same year in January of 2004, and featured a cast of characters who were primarily femme, thin, white women based in Los Angeles. Besides “The L Word,” there were few sapphic characters on television and even fewer films in the Western canon that featured Asians and Asian Americans. The blockbuster success of “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993 made it the first major Hollywood movie to feature an all-Asian and women-led cast. It would take another 25 years before Hollywood would take a chance on another all-Asian production of the same magnitude, “Crazy Rich Asians.”
But it was Wu, an industry outsider who prioritized the authenticity of her film over its commerciality, who pushed boundaries of race and language barriers to represent identities she wanted to see on the big screen. (Hollywood writers recently won a new contract to keep their work financially sustainable and autonomous from being fed to artificial intelligence. I support my colleagues and think that “Saving Face” is a prime example of how freedom in creative expression makes better art.)
“Wu’s trailblazing film made space for me to simply imagine a world where I could tell intersectional stories.”
It’s somewhat ironic that the word “lesbian” is never spelled out explicitly throughout the film. Rather, we as the audience subliminally understand the context of Wil and Vivian’s (Lynn Chen) blossoming romance as a gradual tension building from their first longing glances exchanged across the ballroom dance floor as they’re shuffled between dancing partners of eligible bachelors. The R-rated film shows sex as a bonding of intimacy between the two women, rather than the gratuitous exchange of fluids we so often see in other lesbian films directed by straight men.
While Wu doesn’t shy away from portraying the racism, misogyny, and conservative ideals that govern the social norms of this Chinese American enclave, she also doesn’t give into the urge to simply pile on and lean into xenophobic stereotypes. Small details in the film – like conversations among aunties at the hairdresser who catch up to hear about their children’s exploits – clue us into the realities of this community. Raising guai hai zi, or good children, is a matter of uplifting and maintaining the continuity of Chinese heritage languages and food in a white American world, one we don’t see onscreen but we implicitly understand as different and apart.
“Saving Face” is actually less of a love story and more a redemption arc for a mother learning to accept her daughter for who she is. When Wil’s mother, Hwei-Lan (Joan Chen), becomes pregnant and unwilling to give up the name of the father, she becomes the pariah of Flushing. Wai Gung (Jin Wang), Wil’s grandfather, throws his daughter out of the house, forcing Hwei-Lan to move in with Wil and confront the nature of each of their secrets. Hwei-Lan, no longer the paragon of virtue, has to learn how to rely on her daughter for support and reconcile her daughter’s sexual orientation with her own views.
Wu might not have been able to predict how her film would create an authentic and relatable portrayal of queer Asian American experience, but the specificity and attention to detail has won over audiences across the LGBTQ+ community. It’s even become a cult classic among white lesbians.
Watching “Saving Face” felt like a miracle gifted to my muse and craft. It was a film that was in conversation with itself, uninterested in doing the work of dissecting the experience of “otherness” to a white and straight American audience. Instead, it held these gaysian experiences with tenderness and nuance for both Wil and her immigrant community.
The same year that I watched “Saving Face” for the first time, I would go on to teach myself how to edit in Premiere Pro as I produced, edited, and directed (with the help of my queer APIA colleagues) my first documentary short, “Mia’s Mission,” about an elder transgender Japanese American lawyer. Today, with over half a dozen film festival acceptances and an upcoming video fellowship with The Los Angeles Times, I look back at how Wu’s trailblazing film made space for me to simply imagine a world where I could tell intersectional stories.
Like Wu, I am a self-taught Taiwanese American filmmaker. But today’s media landscape is very different from the early 2000s. In Wu’s time, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment supported the production of “Saving Face,” and it was one of the few nonprofits aimed at increasing APIA representation in Hollywood. Now, there are a plethora of nonprofits and organizations that support my growth as an independent filmmaker, including Made In Her Image, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, the Asian American Documentary Network, OutFest, and more. I’m also lucky that as I’m coming up as a filmmaker, queer Asian American cinema is enjoying a renaissance. Last year marked the release of two major queer Asian American films, the romantic comedy “Fire Island” and the Academy Award-winning sci-fi “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” among countless others stretching the bounds of representation in Hollywood.
Although we have so much further to go in terms of representation, it feels like we’ve finally reached a watershed point where our stories are no longer the outlier or rarity, but a centerpiece of current cinema. And I’m glad to be part of a legacy that Wu helped create nearly 20 years ago.