Alice Wu's felicitous Saving Face (Sony Pictures Classics) is like a sex farce played at quarter speed, with so much gentle irony that the comic incongruities—not to mention the angry ones—hit you a beat or two late, when you're not prepared to be goosed. Farces work best in repressive and inflexible cultures, so that the characters are forced to sneak around behind the backs of enforcers and censors, shamefacedly but helplessly led by their instincts. The taboo-heavy culture here is the large, traditional Chinatown of Flushing, Queens, in which patriarchs remain firmly oversensitive to deviation and disgrace, and there's always a band of gossiping "biddies" to enforce the status quo.
Everyone in this film is very serious, including the protagonist, Wil (Michele Krusiec), a talented surgical resident who knows enough not to broadcast her lesbianism on home turf and who allows her widowed mother and grandparents to match her up with an endless stream of Chinese professional suitors. A tall, broad-shouldered lad known as Little Yu (Brian Yang) even meets her at her subway station every week to give her herbs to increase her "marriage chi." Stonefaced, Wil accepts the herbs: It's easier than spurning them. She doesn't take any kind of stand—which is the reason, perhaps, that she hasn't had any intense relationships.
Until now. Saving Face gets going with the news that Wil's 48-year-old mother (Joan Chen) has been scandalously knocked-up by a Father To Be Named Later, and with Wil's introduction to Vivian (Lynn Chen), a dancer from the same Flushing neighborhood. Vivian is a lip-smacking beauty: a big, curvy, lollipop of a girl too ripely sexual for this starchy milieu. She's laughably seductive. She shows up at Wil's hospital, saunters down a staircase in back of a soda machine, and advises her disconcerted quarry on a choice of beverage: "Sometimes your body knows what you really want." The uninhibited Vivian throws Wil's delicate balance out of whack. So does the arrival of her banished, pregnant mom, who moves into her less-than-luxuriously-situated apartment and proceeds both to judge her and evince the most irritating kind of helplessness.
Nearly everything that follows is loopy but deadpan. Ma has led a sheltered Flushing life and speaks practically no English. She takes a trip to Wil's local video store, where she asks for "China" films and gets directed to a shelf containing multiple copies of The Last Emperor and The Joy Luck Club (the Joan Chen Collection), along with Chinese porn. She takes the porn. Not having had much exposure to other cultures, she is disturbed by Wil's "dark, loud" African-American neighbor (Ato Essandoh), but seems increasingly open to experience. Now it's Wil's turn to fix her mother up with assorted Chinese men, alternately elderly or avuncular, and not the sort to light this luscious woman's fire. (The Chinese males here have a kind of smugness that doesn't make you pity them that much; they are fond of applying such sayings to women as, "Forget meat on the grill and it will dry out.") Who is the father of that child, anyway? While Wil applies herself to the needs of her mother, Vivian begins to stamp her pretty foot about going out in public together.
What makes Alice Wu's debut so pleasurable is its easy rhythms, its sly juxtapositions, and its relaxed but funny performances. A generous straight man, Krusiec gives the film emotional heft while Joan Chen makes you smile. Chen doesn't play this material for comedy, which makes her hypersensitivity to her new, American environment so amusing, and her clandestine affair—for which there is no evidence apart from her belly—so subversive. Saving Face is too unpretentious to damage with overpraise or over-analysis. There is a modesty to the enterprise that matches up well with its unflamboyant heroine, so that you understand on a gut level why it's not Wil's thing to make big scenes. She's a surgeon—finely, deftly tuned. So is the movie.
Having no wish to tread on the tootsies of my excellent colleague, Dana Stevens, I have held my peace about the very fine HBO movie The Girl in the Café. But as its title character, Gina (Kelly McDonald), can't manage to restrain her public-spirited declarations, let me indecorously tell you why I feel that it's a wonderful piece of writing, acting, directing, and politics.
First, a lament: As a critic, I'm constantly in the unhappy position of dumping on writers and directors whose politics I respect but whose work makes me roll my eyes. The recent Crash and Kingdom of Heaven, for example, express views (racism and religious intolerance are very bad things) with which I couldn't agree more fervently. But to varying degrees both films lack verisimilitude and, more important, drama. It's the job of a screenwriter or director to find the most eloquent and surprising spokespeople for opposing points of view, even abhorrent ones—if for no other reason than to spell out why anyone would be seduced by the dark side. Otherwise, what you have is agitprop.
But there is a place for honest agitprop! And it is hard to imagine a film more open and guileless in its intentions than The Girl in the Café. It's a piece of naiveté—but radiant naiveté, with grace and humor.
By now, you must know the premise: In a café, a socially backward diplomatic aide (Bill Nighy) sits opposite (or, more precisely, diagonally from) a seemingly introverted young woman, courts her in the most halting manner imaginable (he is inexperienced; she is damaged), and finally invites her to Iceland (the land of her heroine, Björk) for the G-8 economic summit. There, she learns (or did she know?) about the Millennium Project, intended to mount a full-scale war on extreme African poverty, which kills one child every three seconds. The British delegation is more committed than any other to keeping the funds in place, but these hardened diplomats are prepared to accept the necessity for compromise. The sorrowful, angry Gina violates decorum by accosting sundry ministers (including the top man) and speaking up for the African children. Poor smitten Lawrence is aghast—and yet, being pure in heart, cannot shrug off or renounce her.
The screenwriter, Richard Curtis, does not allow the other side—the U.S. delegation—to argue convincingly for a "sensible" cost-balance analysis. Judging from Love, Actually, in which the American president (Billy Bob Thornton) is a Clintonesque horndog, he has no love for the American government, and I suspect he finds the current administration too corrupt to have a conscience, much less yield to one.