Our Favourite Films: Saving Face

our favourite films saving faceThe process of breaking free from enmeshment

(Spoilers abound! Even if you’re immune… Run to your bestie’s house to peruse a title from her DVD collection so you can watch Alice Wu’s feature length debut before continuing!)

I was in the middle of finishing the finale of the fifth season of ‘This Is Us’ when a technical glitch happened, so, not wanting to expend any more energy to find a way around it, I decided to read the recaps. After reading the one from AV Club’s Caroline Siede, I found myself checking out her Twitter feed (as she invites readers to reach out). Generally, I avoid crowded discussions and when I saw that there was a bit of room to interact with her tweets, I continued scrolling and found one about a Romantic Comedy that was more than 15 years old. Make me laugh, and you have me. So, I’m not going to say no to something that could possible yield a handful of belly-laughs.

The Setup: Wilhelmina Pang (Michelle Krusiec) is crushing it as a surgeon. If things go well, she’ll likely be the head of her department in about 10 years. Being in a relationship with someone who her mother approves of (or just being in a relationship in general) isn’t something that’s been a priority. Her long hours at the hospital (and constantly changing schedule) isn’t necessarily something that is ‘relationship friendly’. Even then, she’s not complaining.

The Inciting Incident: Wil’s mother, Hwei-Lan Gao (Joan Chen), unexpectedly moves in. Previously, mum was living with her parents. We don’t get any information on why she chose that (or if she is recently retired – she does mention that she worked so she could provide for her daughter after her husband’s death). This change of events isn’t necessarily welcome for Wil as there is a possibility to bring a new person in her life, in the form of Vivian Shing (Lynn Chen). Wil reconnects with Vivian after 19 years at an event presided by her grandfather, Wai Gung (Jin Wang). The patriarch remains fiercely loyal to Chinese traditions and doesn’t consider himself as an American (who have concerns such as worrying about menopause).

The Stakes: Wil’s long term happiness. Though our protagonist probably sees the stakes as losing her connection with grandpa and mum (Because as long as they are happy, she’ll be happy too. Right?). The point of adolescence is for the child to slowly ween themselves off from their carers. Since, at 28, Wil is just a few years out of it, it’s no surprise that the process is still continuing considering staying close to her mother and grandparents is important. Interestingly, Vivian also has her own battle with a parent. Her dad still is clinging to the importance of prestige in the form of having a daughter succeeding in an internationally recognised ballet company.

Yes, a promise for laughter is usually enough. Well, I think reading Caroline’s thoughts also helped a bit. As some comments on YouTube read: “I see [insert name or subject], I click.”. In my case, the genre that takes the least energy to convince me to watch TV Shows/Films would definitely be romantic comedies. Though maybe I should be clear that it’s the comedy, rather than the romance that would sell it. I’ve accepted that humour is a quick way to get me to listen to whatever your peddling (I am constantly reminding myself to be careful after that realisation!). Thankfully, those who share a similar humour blueprint with me are mostly decent people. If they aren’t, I can always turn to my ‘friendship funnel’ in determining if a specific human is a good conversation partner.

What surprised me was how much I laughed. The set-ups and payoffs are skilfully done and it’s difficult to believe that its from someone who went from writing her first script to directing it. Romantic Comedies usually struggle with balancing the comedy with the heartfelt moments. Even the ‘Dad Jokes’ didn’t have me groaning and shaking my head. This just proves that if you feel the pull as a writer, you never really know how much you’ll be missed if you just shrug and ignore taking the first step. Yes, you do risk being misunderstood. But what if you’re not?

Comedic Moments:

  • Even in 2004, toilet paper is essential
  • Lorelai Gilmore would be proud
  • Luck could also extend to curtains
  • Wil is practical
  • Your doctor may be the right person to ask for date recommendations
  • Food is the ultimate excuse to hold off answering questions
  • Yellow = Discounted
  • Jay joins in watching Hwei-Lan’s soap
  • Meddling runaway brides stay in taxis

The film doesn’t forget the important epilogue. I feel like a lot of comedies forget this. Doesn’t matter if they are a mix of drama and romance (or singularly hyphenated with comedy), epilogues add to the light-heartedness and it is a great way to put in bloopers and flash-forwards (without worrying about the pacing of the film with double or even quadruple punchlines!). It’s the little things that make this a must-watch. One example is my realisation that Wil and her mum share a bed. There isn’t a shot of them sleeping, even separately at different times, and we only get a hint when Wil wakes up. It was only then I realised that it’s actually a pull-out bed, and even thinking that the lounge room is the bedroom (there’s another shot of the bed in Wil’s bedroom being used as storage for her mother’s things). Another is that Vivian amusingly uses a question (‘Thirsty?’) as code. We aren’t really shown what it is for (except that Wil is presented tea when she visits Vivian’s apartment for the first time and her reaction to the question while window shopping at a corner shop) and it having an additional layer in 2021.

One additional thing I’m looking to note when talking about titles I view is through the lens of The Bechdel Test. As it is no mystery how much I appreciate ‘Felicity’, I was delighted to have finally found the answer to why JJ Abrams writes so many female-centric stories: he was surrounded by brilliant women while growing up and studying in Sarah Lawrence College. So it wasn’t a surprise why his production company, Bad Robot, quickly pivoted to include more diversity in projects more than five years ago after what happened during the 2016 Oscars. I know it probably isn’t necessary to do the test on this particular film because the protagonist (Wil), antagonist (Hwei-Lan), and love interest (Vivian) are all women. Which means it quickly fulfils the requirement of the first two questions (“Are there at least two named female characters?” & “Do they speak to each other?”). The third question (“Do they speak to each other about something other than a male ‘love’ interest?”) would bury the film if Wil and Vivian didn’t have scenes on their own. I think going through the process regularly would be a good exercise for me as it would intentionally make me consider the conversations happening in the story (which is basically: get the kids married so we won’t have to worry about them).

Unfortunately, JJ’s approach is not common, and looking through some films that have made it to my list (titles that I’ve rated 5/10 or above), there are a number of them that might fail at least one of the questions. I would have to rewatch them, but at face value ‘We Are Marshall’, ‘Last Chance Harvey’, ‘Source Code’, ‘The Boys Are Back’, and ‘My Life Without Me’ are some of the ones I’m slightly worried about. I’m not including titles that have just two characters, like ‘Gravity’ or ‘Moon’ (though my reluctance to recommending it is totally for a different reason). I look forward to the day that Christopher Nolan would have a film that has a female protagonist. It doesn’t mean that I would stop viewing or recommending his films if it doesn’t happen, as Alice does mention that she makes films that come from her unique viewpoint and that curtailed her rise to ‘box office smash status’. Not because she was not offered broader subjects to tackle, but because she is quite protective of her time (though I’m still hoping that TV show would happen).

Just like I mentioned when I wrote about Richard Curtis’ (supposed) last film, ‘About Time‘, I have learned that the best films with anything ‘Rom’ is if it is not the defining thread of the story. Another thing I’ve realised is that, if I had seen it soon after its release, I would have not laughed as much as I did more than 15 years later. Much of the film’s humour would fall in the ‘subtle’ and ‘hyperbole’ box. I had not yet gotten to the point in appreciating those categories until properly getting into ‘The West Wing’ (it took watching the weakest season for me to fall for the show thanks to Jesse Bradford appearing in a number of episodes) and eventually ‘The Good Wife’ which has layers to its humour. A number of my laughs were during transitions and some even as I found myself thinking of the film. One of the memorable ones was Alice cutting right into the scene when mum meets Vivian right after Wil gives the ‘holy crap I don’t want to say yes but its pretty much inevitable’ look.

Relationships are difficult. It doesn’t matter if it is with someone who we see as a potential spouse or if it’s the vendor who’s been supplying our bulk toilet paper (was that too ‘on the nose’ to reflect when this was written?). I like that the film shows a number of parallels reminding us about the importance of knowing when to say no (as Wil does when her mum runs off from her wedding and starts babbling about the changes needed in her daughter’s apartment). One recent thing I learned is the term ‘enmeshment‘. It’s basically the lack of boundaries, enough that the other person struggles to function in their own life. I thought it was interesting that Mum, Wil, and Vivian all have it in theirs. Hwei-Lan went through it with her dad then carried it when raising her daughter. Vivian struggles to come to terms to have a fulfilling career as a dancer (going more the contemporary route) as she wants to please her father (who is clinging to classical dance as it is something he understands).

I’ve been trying to figure out what is it about the chemistry between Wil and Vivian that elevates their story to those other memorable fictional couples, and my answer is: timing. They have it on their side. Not to mention an alignment in their sense of humour, commitment to their careers, ages (Vivian is only a year younger than Wil), and wanting to care for their mums. What stands out is how kind they are (both to each other and those around them), and even though things get heated, there are never any cheap shots. Though there are some bungles in Act 2, which culminates in them breaking up. Their difference in attachment styles (Dismissive-Avoidant & Anxious Preoccupied) eventually complement each other as Vivian (who is more ‘secure’ leaning) communicates her needs clearly and doesn’t have a troublesome ego. They join others (Eva/Albert in ‘Enough Said’, Toula/Ian in ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, Rose/Simon in ‘In Her Shoes’…) who live rent-free in my head and attend dinner parties sharing relationship tips. Other pairs aren’t so lucky (or get an ending left for the viewer to figure out on her own).

There’s also an illustration of what ruins a lot of relationships: the lack of communication. Vivian was at her wit’s end to have enough energy to ask why (or if) Wil has been avoiding her. Though it wouldn’t have been needed if Wil clarified what heading to Paris meant to Vivian. When it got revealed (immediately after a funny moment of course!) that all that’s left now is for the dancer to accept the offer, it’s clear that Wil is just swimming in her emotions (no tears fell but her eyes watered) to have enough energy to notice the silver lining (that it’s not actually what Viv wants). I didn’t catch it the first time because I was laughing and appreciating Michelle Krusiec’s impeccable comedic timing. It’s sort of in the same league as Parminder Nagra delivering one of her memorable lines (“Me!? Kissing? A boy!?”) in ‘Bend It Like Beckham’. It also is what drives the conflict between Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini). Eva listens to someone (Albert’s ex-wife) who isn’t a reliable source of information (she could only see the ‘bad’). You would have thought us humans would have learned by now how important communicating what is happening in our heads to someone we care about.

It may just come to the impeccable casting. That Michelle and Lynn have somehow put a bit of themselves playing those roles (so I’m quite confused why there are those who consider their performances any other than skillful). Compared to what we saw during their watch party (‘Drunk Lesbians Watch…‘) with Ashly Perez and Amanda Holland, it seems like Wil and Vivian could be a more subdued version of the two (I mean I couldn’t even decide who was pulling the viewer’s leg here!). This actually makes me wonder why there isn’t much bickering between the two of them in the film, and my theory is that they need something to bounce off on. Which is probably why seeing the performers argue for their character gave me a load of belly laughs. Since I had watched ‘Friends’ and ‘Elementary’, it was easy to spot Ato Essandoh (who coincidentally is also in ‘Hitch’) and Jessica Hecht and know that they are able to carry scenes (which they did) and also have comedic skills of their own (using ‘ER’ approach when lining up dates for mum).

It also helped that Alice is very articulate and not to mention inspirational. When I read her essay on Medium about not playing it safe when onstage. I reminded myself that the story resonates with me for a reason. Though there are times when putting things into words isn’t possible, giving it ‘a go’ doesn’t hurt, because sometimes there’s something there in that cul-de-sac (as Meg LeFauve would put it). I am thankful I’m not unnecessarily tethered to the wrong guy because most of society sees those who are not in relationships as not living their best life. Yet I also would like to remind myself that it’s okay to let myself fall in love and be continually open to the prospect of finding my life partner. I’ve been reluctant to even mention it as the admission makes it possible for someone to take advantage of that (though I did make a teeny step in making one of my letters public a couple of years ago). There’s a scene in Season 3 of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ when Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) realises that she ran before letting Benjamin Ettenberg (Zachary Levi) have a say on the change in her situation. As an optimist, I feel like it would have worked out. It also makes me wonder how many times I have done that in the past, causing me to miss out.

Because I had spent longer than usual to write this, I found myself imagining how certain roles would have been if Michelle or Lynn would have been cast. That’s what happens when you spend time absorbing all sorts of seemingly unnecessary information about what you’re writing about. The latest imagining was for Season 1 of ‘Modern Love’. I don’t know why I returned after the first half teetering on a 5/10. My suspicion is I didn’t want to expend the mental energy I had left to browsing the titles available on Amazon Prime. The podcast led me to the essays, and maybe I was hoping that it was just like what I read: some were engaging, and some weren’t. The payoff was quite big as I found myself in tears while watching the last three episodes. I even had to take a break halfway through episode 8 (tears were basically flowing the entire episode). Yes, I could have turned a lower word count in, yet somehow I feel like spending the extra days (It’ll likely turn out to be a week) to just allow my mind to grasp any additional revelations. I’m pausing to ask ‘why’ at least three times.

What probably prevents it being as polished as it could have been seems to be resources. This was made on a shoestring budget. Sibling ‘Hitch’ via Overbrook Entertainment was the one that got the lion’s share (if there was a ‘pie’ being distributed). Which is why Will Smith’s name appears during the opening credits. I couldn’t also see it as going below a 7/10 because it has both plot and character development in balance. It’s similarities with ‘Bumblebee’ has the ‘hanging out’ (Charlie and Bee) scenes something viewers would want more of. Roger Ebert used the phrase ‘throwaway detail’ while singing the praises of Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’. I feel like there should be a better term for it (definitely not ‘shoe leather’) as it is a sign that the story we’re watching unfold onscreen has been made with the utmost care and patience.

Moments like Wil going off from the lounge room mid-conversation with mum and returning with a string of floss. The floss isn’t used as an object to fiddle with, but rather as a note about Wil’s concern about oral hygiene (in another scene she uses a tongue scraper). It initially made me wonder if it was to prevent something that happened before (which again would align with the ‘saving face’ motif of the film) or she was just scared straight by the adults around her growing up. Later, I remembered mum telling Mrs. Wong (Clare Sum) to make sure her son, Raymond (Hoon Lee) has clean hands when he meets Wil. That point is further punctuated (I did laugh!) with a shot of her wiping off Raymond’s hands before he dances with Wil. It’s mysteries like that which make me appreciate this gem of a movie even more after each viewing.

I was also hit by the realisation that even if a film ended up with high ratings, that I don’t necessarily find myself putting in as much research as I did. That’s probably what inched this one from a 7/10 to an 8/10 (masterpiece level). I found myself thinking about possible storylines to convince Alice to make a sequel (like maybe focus it on Jenny figuring out how to find a new circle of friends, even if it means she move out from Flushing). There’s also the surprise on how one can endure a second or third viewing of the film. Generally, once is enough for me, as the jokes (if any) and reveals are really rarely compelling enough. An example is a season of ’24’. I’ve heard of viewers having it in the background. But me? One run-through is enough. Even ‘Soul‘ (which got a 10/10) isn’t something that I see viewing more than once every couple of years.

Having recently watched 30% of ‘Tenet’, it did make me wonder why I would give it 3/10. We’re talking about a much anticipated film by Christopher Nolan, who is a filmmaker I admire. Chris has long been known for his unique approach to storytelling (‘Memento’, ‘Inception’, and ‘Batman Begins’). The first of the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy is one of the rare films that had me riveted after watching the trailer (it was Henri Ducard sparring with Bruce Wayne over an icy lake as part of his training) and got me scrambling to get a copy of the DVD (I still amusingly remember the “It’s not ‘Fatman’ it’s ‘Batman’” jab towards Christian Bale in the special features as he worked on bulking up after playing Trevor Reznik in ‘The Machinist’). It dawned on me that I didn’t care about the Protagonist (John David Washington). It’s not that John didn’t have any sort of onscreen presence, it’s just the lack of information about his character in connection to the challenge he has before him.

Maybe that’s why I prefer the first ‘Nolan Batman’ rather than the second? ‘Tenet’ opens at the concert hall and we don’t get to the protagonist until a bit later. Compare this to ‘Saving Face’ which right away gives us Wil impatiently waiting for a face mask to take. Even if it’s only until I’ve seen the film a couple of times that I really appreciated the storytelling skills of Alice Wu. Yes, I know you might go: “But Leigh! One is a dramedy and the other a full-on action film!”. So, I instead thought about an action film that I enjoyed that still holds well and landed upon Sam Mendes’ ‘Skyfall‘. I might have had the benefit of previously seeing ‘Casino Royale’ and have that familiarity towards James Bond. What makes this one different is it shows the link (loyalty?) between M (Judi Dench) and 007 (Daniel Craig). Though Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) comes across as the antagonist, I feel like he’s just a mirror character. But digging deeper made me realise that M is actually the mentor and Silva reflects how Bond could have become bitter after he was just left for dead (as Silva was once).

I know that writing deep emotion is something that Nolan struggles with. The only other emotionally resonant film he did aside from ‘Batman Begins’ (6/10 – this is after subsequent rewatches, and I could see myself giving this a 9/10 during my first viewing) was ‘Interstellar’ (7/10) which contained two strong emotional moments between dad (Matthew McConaughey) and daughter (Jessica Chastain & Ellen Burstyn playing versions of Murph). Which is why Alice gets an 8 and Chris gets a 3. I have no idea what the solution is for The Protagonist to make him more compelling during those early minutes, and further analysing ‘Saving Face’ could help unearth the answer. I find it interesting that there was a time that I was blown away by ‘Inception’, yet now, I feel like it lacks character development (and the moments when there was were my favourites). There’s a likelihood that it just points towards my own journey in being more open to emotion. It’s easy to understand why Chris focuses more on spectacle and plot rather than ‘hanging out moments’ because there are a subset of viewers who are not open about their own emotional growth and therefore get annoyed when confronted by it.

Yet another thing that I noticed was the lack of talk about fashion or beauty. It wasn’t until I recalled a scene from ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ in which both the protagonist (Nia Vardalos) and her love interest (John Corbett) are at the tipping point of their relationship. The concept of attractiveness and appropriate attire is only discussed by judgemental characters. Wil doing so towards her mother is more about the daughter knowing to speak in her language (as Hwei-Lan is still going through her own adolescence and still feels that the ultimate compliment is about her looks). It has long been thought that complimenting someone because of their looks is supposed to be helpful, but after reading Beanie Feldstein’s essay about her body shape and watching Javid Abdelmoneim’s two part documentary about the benefit of raising kids in a gender neutral environment, I am making a mental note to avoid doing so unless asked.

Thankfully it also doesn’t seem to apply with Little Yu (Brian Yang) and Wil’s mother. It speaks more about ‘initial chemistry’ which is what Vivian tells Wil at the vending machine and also what Donna (Margo Martindale) notes when Tamra (Meaghan Witri) asks her for advice in ‘The Winning Season’. I believe that this is also the phenomenon that makes two people pause when passing each other while crossing the street. It’s great for bringing said individuals together, but not necessarily something that would dictate a bright future of a long term partnership. Interestingly, Oprah Winfrey had John Bradshaw on her show and one of the things they talked about is the idea that we are drawn to the kind of people who can give us an opportunity to work out issues we had with those who raised us. An example that comes to mind is an episode of the TV adaptation of ‘Modern Love’ (Season 1 Episode 6: ‘So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?’) where a woman starting her career is drawn to someone that reminds her of her absent father. My affection for the episode stems from the fact that it is a good litmus test for a viewer’s capacity for empathy.

As a Cis straight woman who has privacy at the top of her ’causes’ (not to mention I’d probably identify as a musician first), I felt like I should be avoiding talking about LGBTQIA+ related subjects because there are better qualified people (those who have spent the majority of their lives educating others about inclusion and diversity). But then I am reminded that by me withholding talking about inclusion and tolerance (basically respecting that other people would have a different view than me has more to do about their own journey rather than mine) is like saying: I’ll help you if you put a system in place that prevents doxing and street harassment. I may not have as much to say about the subject as Elliot Page or Candice Czubernat as I have more of a ‘spirituality is a personal journey’ viewpoint and focus more about understanding where a person is in their life.

There’s also unfortunate scenarios when I’ve come across people who consider themselves part of the LGBTQIA+ community behaving in ways which do not align with my values. I know that every group of people have the bad (dismissive, unemphatic, and judgemental) and good (patient, gentle, and willing to invest the time in understanding people with different personalities as well as beliefs). Probably my biggest hurdle is I’m not the kind of human that defines myself as a woman. I remember being resistant to using the tags ‘female’ when I started uploading my drumming related content on YouTube, or have a particular desire to bond with other musicians just because of their gender. On the other hand, I appreciate chivalry. An offer to carry things for me or open doors would be welcome rather than rebuffed (unless the guy was being particularly creepy…in which case I’ll find a way to redirect rather than leave room for escalation).

There is nudity (I was surprised too!). So you may also be in for a double take if you decide to just ‘wing it’ while watching it with your early adolescent kids. Watching it before them does give you a good reason to watch it at least twice (though it more likely increases the risk that you fall into a rabbit-hole just like I did). I did find it interesting that the ratings panel decided to give this an ‘M’ rather than ‘MA’, which could mean that they thought that any ‘MA’ leaning content was done for artistic integrity rather than for ‘graphicness sake’. If you are holding a copy of the DVD, consider grabbing it rather than a digital copy, as there is a likelihood that it would contain Alice’s commentary. If you’re wondering if your book group would be a fit as an audience, just make sure they are at frame of mind that captions and subtitles wouldn’t be a detriment to them enjoying the film. You can sneakily have it in the background when you have guests helping you prep the food for your next potluck at the park. It could be the best way to pitch the film rather than just saying: ‘It’s good! You’ll laugh a lot. Trust me!’.

Leigh Lim.
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