Toward the end of Saving Face, a young lesbian couple meets in the park for their pleasant ritual of bench-sitting and hot-dog eating, but they're currently experiencing a downswing in their relationship, and one of them shows up late. Embittered, the timely one says, "Your hot dog got cold, so I fed it to the birds." The other quips, "Careful, we don't want to start teaching them to eat flesh." Such banter wouldn't be out of place in a David Lynch movie, but coming in a bland scoop of tapioca like Saving Face, this bizarre little exchange throws the film's terminal conventionality into sharp relief. Had first-time writer-director Alice Wu thrown more hot dogs to the birds, instead of merely rehashing the mild culture comedy of arthouse standards like The Wedding Banquet, she might have had a bad movie on her hands, but at least it would flop around a bit instead of playing dead.
The umpteenth variation on second-generation American immigrants bucking the traditions of their first-generation elders, Saving Face takes place in a Chinese-American enclave in New York City, where residents can safely isolate themselves from assimilation. Family honor still means something in this world, which is why Michelle Krusiec, a successful young hospital surgeon, keeps her lesbian proclivities under wraps. Though her mother (Joan Chen) knows the truth, she keeps setting Krusiec up with hapless suitors anyway, but the charade becomes problematic when Krusiec starts getting serious with a pretty ballet dancer. Meanwhile, the widowed Chen drums up some controversy of her own when she gets pregnant by an unrevealed gentleman, prompting her strict father to kick her out of the house. With nowhere else to go, Chen moves into her daughter's cramped apartment and starts wreaking havoc on her personal life.
The message here, as in every quirky ethnic romantic comedy from Bend It Like Beckham to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is "follow your heart." But wouldn't it be great if for once the characters cared more about the continuity of antiquated cultural traditions than their own personal happiness? At the very least, it would knock Saving Face off the track a little and provide some surprises beyond the weird prospect of flesh-eating pigeons. Five years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a big company like Sony Pictures Classics to pick up such a marginal title, but the current vogue for ethnic wedding comedies means more forgettable programmers to come. By now, the gears are definitely showing.