Chinese Diaspora in Alice Wu’s Saving Face
By Colleen I-In Chiang
There are various depictions of diasporic Chinese in cinema, from a variety of perspectives. In movies taking place in Chinese speaking countries, Chinese in diaspora are often portrayed as people who are have a higher social status. They are often wealthy, well-educated, successful, and upwardly mobile. These diasporic Chinese could be the returning oversea students in Home, Sweet Home (Ching-Jui Pai, 1970) or the former lover who emigrated to the United States in A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000). In Chinese cinema, the returning diasporic Chinese symbolizes the “American dream” as depicted in media and literature.
On the other hand, in movies made by Asian Americans, diasporic Chinese are often depicted as people struggling between two cultures. These movies often highlight their immobility rather than their mobility, with Chinese culture operating as a constraint in their lives. Intergenerational conflict is one of the most popular themes in these movies, with hit television show Fresh Off the Boat following in this tradition.
Alice Wu’s movie Saving Face ( 2004) is a movie that brilliantly delineates the lives and struggles of the diasporic Chinese. Following in the tradition of Asian American film and literature. In Asian American literature, including popular novels The Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston, 1976) and The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan, 1989), the conflict between mother and daughter are often the major issues in the novel. The Joy Luck Club (Wayne Wang, 1993) is also made into a movie.
Saving Face focuses on the conflicts between mother and daughter. The movie touches on issues such as homosexuality, May-December romance, and premarital pregnancy. Yet Alice Wu ones one step further and makes both the mother and daughter rebellious daughters fighting against patriarchal Chinese values. The movie begins with Wil, a successful Asian American doctor living in New York City whose mother eagerly sets her up with other single Chinese Americans. As a lesbian, Wil goes along with her mother’s plan until she meets Vivian at a Chinese community gathering. While Wil and Vivian’s relationship slowly develops, Wil’s mother, a middle-aged widow, suddenly intrudes into her life and moves into her apartment — it turns out that Wil’s grandfather has threatened to repudiate her for pregnancy out of wedlock. Wil’s mother refuses to disclose the identity of the father, and starts to date other single Chinese men to find a suitable match. On her mother’s wedding day, Wil discovers the real father of the baby and interrupts the wedding just in time.
Titled Saving Face, the movie tells a story of diasporic Chinese fighting against Chinese patriarchal values. Both Wil and her mother are rebellious daughters who make the Kao family lose face. Wil causes the family to lose face by engaging in a homosexual relationship with Vivian; Wil’s mother brings shame on the Kao family through her pregnancy in midlife outside of wedlock. The pregnancy endangers the seemingly peaceful community: why does she keep the secret on the father’s identity? Could it be someone else’s husband?
As a rebellious daughter, Wil’s mother finds a way to walk out of patriarchal constraints and becomes an independent woman in the end. Wil, on the other hand, faces the dilemma of either to saving face and keeping the secret of her relationship with Vivian or coming out of her closet in public. In this respect, the movie pays tribute to another Chinese diasporic director Ang Lee’s film The Wedding Banquet (Ang Lee, 1993). While the father gives in and gives up his patriarchal power at the JFK airport, Wil comes out of the closet and becomes truly a rebellious daughter at the same place. In these films that depict the diasporic Chinese, patriarchal values are challenged and shaken.
Executive editor: Nien-chen Lin
Proofreading editor: Liz Carter
Colleen I-In Chiang is an assistant professor of Chinese film and literature at the Rhodes College. Her areas of studies are Chinese films, Taiwan and Hong Kong films, and women and gender studies.
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