|by Pam Grady|
|Alice Wu: About Face
Saving Face announces a bold new talent in first-time writer-director Alice Wu. In this buoyant romantic comedy, Michelle Krusiec plays Wil, a closeted Chinese-American surgical resident, whose 48-year-old widowed mother (Joan Chen) shows up on her doorstep, mysteriously pregnant and ostracized by the rest of the family. Wil has no choice but to take Ma in, complicating her budding relationship with new girlfriend Vivian (Lynn Chen), who is not interested in being anybody's secret lover.
Wu took an unusual path to moviemaking. Trained in computer science, she was working in the field in Seattle six years ago when her company underwent a reorganization, leaving her with little to do for a couple of months. She started writing what she thought was a novel, only to realize the story would work better as a movie. So she cashed in her savings and moved to New York to learn filmmaking, training as an editor. Then she won a screenplay contest, which brought her to the attention of Teddy Zee, president of Will Smith's production company. When Zee and Smith came on board as producers and helped Wu secure financing, Saving Face was on its way.
The movie is a smart, sexy comedy, but at its heart is the mother/daughter relationship. The story is not autobiographical, but as Wu revealed in a recent conversation with On Q, it was her sometimes-complicated relationship with her own mother that provided her inspiration.
Q: You've said that you wrote Saving Face as a love letter to your mother. What inspired you to do that?
ALICE WU: At the time, my mom was going through a really difficult time. She was 48, and I saw her go through something where she was essentially ostracized by the Chinese community and all her friends. It was just painful for me to watch. I wrote this, because I think no matter who you arewhether you are white or black or Asian, gay or straight, young or oldeverybody wants to love. I wrote this for my mom, because I just wanted her to know that it was never too late to fall in love for the first time.
Q: This is a romantic comedy, but it is also a coming-out story. You must have a story of your own. What was that like?
AW: I adore my mom, so it was incredibly hard for her when I came out as gay. I came out as gay to myself in my senior year of college. It was liberating, but it was almost a violent realization in my head, because I had spent so many years repressing [my sexuality]. I can't lie to my mom, so, of course, a few months later, over the Thanksgiving holiday, I just came out. It didn't go very well. For her, it just felt like the worst thing I could possibly tell her. She said, "Look, I don't think you're gay. If you ever take a lover, I never want to see you again." And I told her, "I don't have a lover yet, but being gay is not like being a vegetarian. It's not like I just became gay. I've always been gay; it's just that I'm choosing to finally acknowledge it." So I was like, "I respect your wishes. You should just know that I'll always want to hear from youbut until I do, I won't contact you."
Q: How long did that last?
AW: I didn't hear from her for two years. One day out of the blue while I was in grad school, she just called and it was like nothing had happened. We got together and it was the same. We always liked to watch these Chinese soap operas in bed together, so we'd do that. She was going through kind of a tough time in her life, and I think she realized in that moment that I would still be there. That's when she realized, I am her daughtergay or straight, nothing had changed. But it still took us a few more years before we could really talk about it, but now we have an amazing relationship, and I really credit her for sticking it out with me.
Q: What was her reaction when she read your screenplay? I know that you had her do the translations for the Chinese dialogue in the film.
AW: It was an incredible emotional odyssey where at some point she would say, "What kind of a daughter would say this to her mother?" I was like a total brat; I would say, "I'm being creatively oppressed! This is just like my childhood!" Then she would slam the phone down on me, justifiably. But we got through it.
Q: Did you ever talk about the script more deeply than that?
AW: A few months after [she finished the translations], I was in the Bay Area visiting her. I remember it was a beautiful afternoon, and I said, "Mom, now that you've read the script, you know what the film's about and you do realize that once it comes out, all of your friends are going to know why I'm not married." And she said, "Yeah, I've thought about that. You know, I'm not going to lie to you, it's going to be hard; but if this is what you want, then that's what I want for you." I mean, that's love. In the process of making this film that I thought was a love letter to my mom, it really brought us closer together.
Q: How did Joan Chen get involved? It's unusual to see an actress willing to appear older than she actually is.
AW: I thought she was too young, but she loved the script, so I met with her. It wasn't that she was too youngshe was too beautiful. But a certain kind of beauty. She has a very young beauty, and at the start of the film, it could not be like, "Wow! That's mom raring to go!" It had to be, "OK, that's a woman for whom most of the major decisions in her life have already been made." She's essentially just living for her daughter now. When I met Joan a second time, I realized that she would be willing to go there.
Q: And didn't your mother have something to do with the casting, too?
AW: What happened was while I was agonizing over it, my mom went to some fortune-teller who told her that he thought I was going to pick Joan Chen and that as a result of that, she and I were going to have a great friendship and that [Joan] was, in fact, going to teach me that it was possible to have both work and family. It was so hilarious, because all of my mom's fortune-telling escapades usually end with my being pregnant. It always ends up with, like, I will be married with kids. She now actually thinks the marriage will be with a woman. She realizes that that's the way it is. But the kids stay constant! But in a weird way, it turned out to be true. Joan and I did end up becoming really good friends.
Q: Will Smith's production company produced your movie. How did he get involved, and aside from the fact that his financing helped get it made, what has his involvement meant to you?
AW: I won a screenplay contest where the five judges were all industry people, and Teddy Zee, the president of Will Smith's company, was one of them, and he asked to meet. Will Smith, I think he's amazingI hardly have any interaction with him, but I know he loves the movie, and is very supportive. But mostly when I was working on the film day to day, it was Teddy who really shepherded it. What I think is interesting about this is that one of the biggest actors in the world, this African-American actor has [used] his name and found financing for an Asian-American lesbian film. That's something, to me, that feels very much like the American dream. It's like the American dream re-invented, because, for me, the film is very universal. I think, in a weird way, [Will Smith's participation] is symbolic of thatthat so many people could come together from so many different backgrounds to make this film.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based writer who also contributes to FilmStew and Reel.com. She can be reached care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at OnQ@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 6 June 3, 2005