Saving face: balancing tradition and love

Alice Wu’s 2004 feature film debut is a comedic triumph, telling the story of Wilhelmina, a young Chinese-American doctor, battling with societal pressures, caring for her unwed pregnant mother, and finding the courage to love freely.  

The film opens with Wil, having been dragged by her mother (Ma) to yet another Chinese gathering, disgruntled to be set up with the son of yet another Chinese family. But Vivian, the daughter of a recently divorced Chinese mother, captivates Wil. A few days later Wil bumps into Vivian at the hospital where she works. Sparks fly during a brief encounter at the vending machine, becoming the first domino in a series of flirtatious encounters.

When Wil returns home from work that night, she is met by her mother, who has been thrown out by her grandfather for being pregnant out of wedlock. As Wil starts to date Vivian, she must balance her new secret love life, with that of looking after her increasing needy mother, her career, but most importantly the reputation of her family.

Amazingly for the early 2000s, the film sensitively tackles issue of sexuality, cultural norms and racism. But the film is also a real advocate for change and growth. Ma is blatantly racist to Wil’s black neighbour Jay, and at first insists he eats off a paper plate because it is “safer”. But throughout the film we see Ma’s personal growth as she lets go of her prejudice and becomes close friends with Jay, regularly hanging out and watching Asian soap operas with him. The physical distance she keeps from Jay slowly gets smaller and smaller as the film goes on, illustrating her changing attitude, and growing attachment to Jay (and life outside of tradition).

This change in traditional views is an important theme in the film, and we get to see a number of characters evolution, most notably heavily closeted Wil finally coming out to her mother and the Chinese community she tries so hard to please.

If you’re looking for a rom-com to add to your Saturday night watch list, this film is a must. Whilst somewhat predictable, the film offers a unique story of love in a multi generational community, and emphasises the importance and empowerment of defying tradition.

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