THERE'S ENOUGH awkwardness -- social, sexual, racial, professional, generational, cultural -- for several movies in "Saving Face." Set in the Chinese American community of New York City, the romantic comedy tells the story of a semi-closeted lesbian named Wilhelmina Pang (Michelle Krusiec), a doctor whose budding romance with a dancer named Vivian (Lynn Chen) is hampered when Wil, as she's known, is forced to take in Wil's divorced (and suddenly, mysteriously pregnant) mother, known as Ma (Joan Chen). Making matters worse, or at least more awkward, is the fact that Vivian is also the daughter of Wil's boss.
But then again, the movie, as its title implies, is all about dealing with shame and embarrassment. So what's a little taboo love (not to mention an unwed, 48-year-old expectant mother in the spare bedroom) between friends?
Actually, the movie isn't really about that at all. It's about being with the one you want and accepting who you are at all costs, even if that means risking the opprobrium of your family, friends and co-workers. A laugh riot it is not.
A sweet, true and, at times, universal love story it is.
Written and directed by Alice Wu, who has spoken of her resistance to efforts to make her change the characters' ethnicity or sexual orientation to make it a more marketable film, "Saving Face" feels neither especially Chinese nor especially gay. Rather it's a movie that speaks to the little part of all of us that is a bit at odds with something, be that our rootedness in the old world or the new one under whose skies we are currently trying to stretch our branches.
I have the feeling that Wu may sometimes think she has a funnier movie on her hands than she does. A montage of several disastrous dates between Wil's mother and various lumpy middle-aged suitors is rather amusing, but it by no means sets the tone for the film, which instead boasts a generally serious mood. At least until the end.
Part of that is because of Krusiec's performance as Wil, who is at once mousy, uptight, driven, commitment-phobic and in denial. Practically from the get-go, you just want to shake her character and tell her, as her neighbor Jay (Ato Essandoh) does at one point (except for the shaking part): Admit who you are and what you want -- to your mother, grandfather and boss, to Vivian and to yourself.
It's actually quite a canny performance. Wil's Hamletlike inability to take action -- or responsibility -- for her own happiness builds to such a degree that the film's conclusion, which crescendos in a wedding scene reminiscent of "The Graduate," is all the more satisfying for it.
Unlike "The Graduate," though, who only happy-ish ending left viewers with the question "Now what?" hanging in the air, "Saving Face," with its "three months later" epilogue, is more of a fairy-tale romance, where everyone -- which is to say Wil and Ma -- gets the person she wants, even if it isn't the person everyone else wants her to have.
SAVING FACE (R, 97 minutes) -- Contains sexual content, partial nudity and brief obscenity. In English and Mandarin with subtitles. Area theaters.