When Alice Wu wrote and directed her 2005 debut, “Saving Face,” she knew it wasn’t going to be your typical Hollywood rom-com. Other than the “Last Emperor” star Joan Chen, cast wildly against type as a frumpy (until she isn’t), mysteriously pregnant mom, the ensemble consisted largely of unknowns. Much of the film was set in Flushing, Queens, and not even the neighborhood’s prettiest parts; and the story itself focused on a budding lesbian relationship between two Chinese-American overachievers.
“I was trying to make the biggest romantic comedy I could on a tiny budget, with all Asian-American actors, and half of it in Mandarin Chinese,” she said.
Even so, “Saving Face,” years away from the successes of either “The Joy Luck Club,” in 1993, or 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” has had an outsized impact on Asian-American filmmakers and cinema. Ali Wong (“Always Be My Maybe”) has said that seeing it as a young girl made her believe that “Asian-Americans were capable of creating great art.” Last year, it was named one of the 20 best Asian-American films of the last 20 years by a collection of critics and curators assembled by The Los Angeles Times.
“It’s a brilliant first film,” Gong said.
This week, “The Half of It,” a YA take on Cyrano de Bergerac written and directed by Wu, premieres on Netflix. In the film, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a smart, introverted Chinese-American teen, helps Paul (Daniel Diemer), a sweet but not so smart jock, woo Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the beautiful girl of both their dreams. “The moment I read, ‘and she falls for the girl,’ I was like, oh my God, I’m in,” Lewis said.
The film arrives in a much different environment for Asian-American writers and directors — one that in many ways “Saving Face” helped create. It’s also the first and only film Wu, now 50, has made since her directorial debut 15 years ago.
“I didn’t go into this business thinking, I want to be a filmmaker,” said Wu, a former program manager at Microsoft who took a night class in screenwriting, on a whim, in Seattle. “And when ‘Saving Face’ got made against all odds, I had this moment when I was like a deer in headlights.”
In the intervening years, the movie struck a chord with a generation of Asian-American actresses and filmmakers. Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”) had a poster of the film in her bedroom, and described it as the first film that spoke to her as an Asian-American, in particular, an Asian-American woman born and raised in Flushing.
The director Lulu Wang is also a fan, even as she marvels that the film, much like her own 2019 sleeper hit “The Farewell,” got made at all. “There was Ang Lee, there was Alice, but it was a very select few that were really trying to push the boundaries,” she said. “Alice did it before any of us.”
“Saving Face” told the story of Wil (short for Wilhelmina), a young Chinese-American surgeon played by Michelle Krusiec; her aspiring-ballerina girlfriend, Vivian (Lynn Chen, in her first starring role); and Wil’s mother (Joan Chen), who finds herself, at 48, with child.
“I’d never gotten to play a character like that,” said Joan Chen. “It was just so delicious.”
But when Wu first began meeting with producers and studio executives, many of them wanted her to make the lead characters white. This was more than a decade before #OscarsSoWhite and #StarringJohnCho began calling out offenders and movies by name. Maybe she could make the characters straight, they wondered? And they wanted a lot less Mandarin.
Wu balked at all of it. “Of course I can write white things,” she said. “I pretty much live in a world where most people I interact with are white, so I can write those characters. Can those people write me? I’m not sure.”
The film, which was produced by Teddy Zee and the actor Will Smith and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2004, and screened at Sundance the following January. A few months later, it opened the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (now CAAMFest). “I’ll never forget being in the Castro, in a huge audience of queer men in leather sitting next to old immigrant Chinese men who could barely speak English,” she said. “That’s something I will take to my grave as one of the best feelings of my life.”
The film even won a Viewer’s Choice Award at Taiwan’s equivalent of the Oscars, the Golden Horse awards, much to Wu’s surprise, given the focus on female sexuality and the fact that unlike all of its competitors, much of “Saving Face” was in English, or, in some instances, Mandarin with an American accent.
“I worried that when this film came out, that I wasn’t going to be able to eat in any Chinese restaurant, ever,” she said. “We’re a very, very critical people.”
After “Saving Face,” Wu worked on other projects, and even sold a pitch to ABC. It was fun, she said, but little of it spoke to her.
“She’s not the kind of person you can go, hey, can you write a couple episodes of ‘Modern Family’?” said Zee, adding, “She’s not a great gun for hire.”
Soon after, Wu left the industry to care for her ailing mother in San Jose. Wu took her earnings from Microsoft and “Saving Face,” made some smart investments, and found a way to live off her savings and interest income for the next several years. “Luckily, I don’t cost a lot,” she said.
She told little of this to anyone. When asked if they knew what she had been doing all these years, her “Saving Face” friends had hardly any idea. “Alice has always been pretty secretive about what she’s doing, career-wise,” said the actress Lynn Chen. “She always wanted to know what was going on with you.”
Three years ago, after her mother improved and she found herself “single once again,” Wu began writing. “It just started pouring out of me,” she said.
But when she tried her hand at a second movie, something for her to direct, Wu froze. So she did what any sensible, blocked writer would do: she wrote a check for $1,000 to the National Rifle Association, a cause she decidedly does not support. “I gave it to one of my best friends, TJ, who’s a butch firefighter,” she said. “I gave myself five weeks, and told her, if this first draft is not written, you are sending that check in.”
Wu set her story in Squahamish, a fictional backwater in Washington state. “I had been Googling endlessly about Trump, and decided I was going to set this thing in a small rural town. I was hoping that someone in these red states would watch this, and it would make them think about that one immigrant family, or that one kid who’s a little different. Or maybe they’re thinking of coming out themselves.”
She went with Netflix with the same audience in mind. “That person’s not going to the Landmark Theater to watch this movie,” she said.
A lot has changed since “Saving Face” first played the Castro. Today, Asian-American and Asian-Canadian actresses like Sandra Oh and Awkwafina, Ali Wong and Lana Condor are starring in their own dramatic films, romantic comedies and TV series. Female directors of Asian descent, including Grace Lee, Karyn Kusama, Deborah Chow and Cathy Yan, while still vastly underrepresented, are becoming less of a rarity.
It’s been a long time coming. “At that time, I thought, this is going to be commonplace, right?” said Krusiec, who plays screen legend Anna May Wong in “Hollywood,” Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series. “Every year, I thought we were going to have three or four films like this. I was still too innocent to understand systemic racism, or to understand just how special that film was.”
Lynn Chen, whose directorial debut “I Will Make You Mine” was set to premiere at South by Southwest this year, agreed. “Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of Asian female directors, but the sad thing is, I can still count all of them on two hands.”
Wu credits the Asian-American filmmakers who came before her for getting the chance to make “Saving Face” at all. “And one thing I’m extremely proud of is that Michelle and Lynn are both directing now,” she said. “And Joan, obviously, already was a director. They’re like my family. I don’t take credit for any of that, but I love that I was somehow part of their journey of storytelling in some way.”