The first depiction of an Asian American mother-daughter relationship I saw on-screen was in Gilmore Girls. I’m aware of the irony, but the portrayal of Mrs. Kim, the strict, overbearing, religious mother of Rory’s best friend Lane, shook my 11-year-old self to her core. Mrs. Kim was, to put it bluntly, the antagonist of her daughter’s life. Lane had limited agency as a teenager. She wasn’t allowed to go out with friends and couldn’t publicly date boys, not in the way Rory could. In hindsight, the depiction was merciless in its othering mockery of Asian immigrant parenting, positioned in stark contrast to Lorelai’s casual, cool-mom demeanor. It didn’t help that Amy Chua’s 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother gave a racialized name to this aggressive style of parenting: the tiger mom.
Stories of maternal legacy have long dominated the Asian American cinematic oeuvre, since The Joy Luck Club over two decades ago. The diaspora’s identity, in many ways, exists in stark contrast to that of our first-generation mothers, even in a show like Gilmore Girls. Over the past decade, these narratives have evolved into something much more nuanced and forgiving. There is enough conflict and contention to drive the story forward, but room is left for reconciliation and filial acceptance. Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All At Once are the two most recent films that exemplify this shift. In the early 2000s, however, when Asian American films were few and far between, Alice Wu’s pioneering Saving Face attempted to give equal weight to the foibles and fantasies of both mother and daughter.
Saving Face, a 2004 romantic dramedy, features a Chinese American mother-daughter duo who are, unbeknownst to each other, each reckoning with an illicit romantic relationship. Wil (Michelle Krusiec) and her widowed mother Hwei-Lan (Joan Chen) privately worry that their choices will disappoint and dishonor their family — hence the overarching theme of “saving face.” They live in fear of ostracization from their tight-knit Chinese community in Flushing, Queens, even if abiding by certain cultural norms and expectations comes at the expense of their own individual desires.
Wil is a young and successful surgeon, who has yet to come out as publicly gay to her family. She frequently rebuffs her mother’s efforts to set her up with young Chinese men. After work one night, Wil finds her mom sitting alone in front of her Manhattan apartment. She learns that Hwei-Lan was kicked out by Wil’s grandparents because she is pregnant. Hwei-Lan refuses to reveal the identity of the man who fathered the child, enraging her father, who finds it unacceptable that his 48-year-old daughter is pregnant and unmarried. Meanwhile, Wil starts dating Vivian (Lynn Chen), a dancer and the daughter of Wil’s boss, but struggles to be publicly affectionate with her.
Vivian, in many ways, symbolizes Wil’s liberated potential, although Wil is hesitant at almost every turn in the relationship to showcase a deeper commitment to her. Their romance is far from perfect, and its development is stymied by Wil’s busy work schedule and role as her mother’s newfound caretaker.
Saving Face is often praised as a boundary-breaking, sapphic love story between two Asian American women. It is also, I would argue, a classic diaspora story with protagonists who find themselves caught between two worlds: the traditional values of the motherland versus an individualized, Western way of life. They are asked to determine their allegiances, at the risk of being shunned by their family and community.
Wil’s queer identity runs counter to her mother’s expectations. She has yet to fully come out, and so she sidelines her sexuality, until it impedes her burgeoning relationship with Vivian. Hwei-Lan, on the other hand, is punished for pursuing a secret sexual relationship by her elderly father. She exists in a paralyzing state of guilt and has no one to turn to, except for her daughter. Hwei-Lan’s father won’t allow her to come home until she finds herself a husband before the baby’s due or proves that she conceived by “immaculate conception” — two conditions that are seemingly impossible to fulfill. She seems consigned to her fate as the black sheep of the family, and Hwei-Lan spends her days satisfying her pregnancy cravings and binge-watching soap operas.
A criticism of diasporic storytelling is its tendency to default to an unsatisfying binary, one that poses the old and the new as irreconcilable. Saving Face derives the bulk of its momentum from these cultural anxieties, but slightly inverts the mother-daughter dynamic to offer up a fresh perspective. Cohabiting with her mother brings unexpected complications to Wil’s life. At first, it was an obligatory act of filial piety, but Wil grows accustomed to taking care of her pregnant mother’s emotional and physical needs. They sleep in the same bed, and Wil escorts Hwei-Lan to her gynecology appointments. They begin watching soap operas together, using the plot as a template to discuss hard decisions about life and love. Hwei-Lan’s stoic mask begins to slip. In one scene, she confesses her fear that she’ll be a terrible mother. “I don’t even like babies,” Hwei-Lan admitted to Wil. “You were different. You sprung from the womb already grown up.”
These snippets of domesticity, interlaced with moments of vulnerability and comedic humor, characterize the women beyond their roles as mother and daughter. Wil becomes involved with finding Hwei-Lan a potential husband, scouting candidates in her spare time and helping her get ready for dates. Before Hwei-Lan’s first date, Wil pauses and stares at her mom, as if she’s seeing her for the first time — not as a mother, but as a woman. “Ma, you’re beautiful,” Wil says, her hand caressing Hwei-Lan’s face. It’s a reaction that is tenderly exaggerated, almost bathetic, but it works. The statement captures Wil’s deep-seated admiration for her mother, a complex figure she is desperately trying to better understand.
I was first drawn to Saving Face because of its premise as a queer rom-com. After my first watch, I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t the love story I expected. The film’s primary love story is between mother and daughter, who ultimately realize that they just want the best for each other, even if those decisions are frowned upon by everybody else. It is essentially a love letter from Wu to her mother. “I wanted my mother to know that it was never too late to fall in love for the first time,” according to her director’s statement of the film.
While some critics found the film’s final scenes saccharine and overly simple, Wu was determined to write a happy ending — a narrative that did not default to tragedy or misfortune. And that’s befitting for a mother-daughter story. Why do rom-coms always get happy endings, and not family dramas? With Saving Face, Wu dares to ask: Why not both?