Director Alice Wu’s 2004 film “Saving Face” presents a story of self-acceptance in spite of what one’s community may think. Wu’s debut film features Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen as they slowly develop a romantic relationship. The young women, a doctor and a dancer, are hesitant but passionate in pursuing one another while the Chinese immigrant community they belong to leans towards traditional, conservative beliefs. Despite social norms, the women choose to publicly pursue their relationship, leading a powerful message monumental for queer Asian American women in the early 2000s.

Over the next twenty years, the canon of queer Asian American representation has expanded within the mainstream film industry.

 “I think the more you start having Asian Americans going into the liberal arts or into storytelling, I feel as though there’s a greater number of storytellers,” Wu said in a 2023 interview with Entertainment Weekly’s Yolanda Machado.

Wu is a queer Chinese American woman writing queer Chinese American women characters. The truth behind her work is palpable in her characters’ personalities and behaviors. Wu’s characters feel real whether they are old friends in New York City or unlikely lovers in small-town Squahamish, Washington.

Wu re-entered the film industry sixteen years after “Saving Face” was released. Her most recent film, “The Half of It,” was released in 2020 on Netflix.

A generation later, the landscape of Asian American filmography has changed according to Wu. There are more diverse stories being shared, meaning that more viewers are able to identify and resonate with what they are seeing onscreen.

“The Half of It” stars Leah Lewis and Alexxis Lemire as the leads, two high school girls who fall in love despite living in a tight-knit, religious town.

“I was actually hoping to lure people in who live in a town like that right now, or grew up in a town like that. Hopefully, they fall in love with the characters, and then by the end it might make them think a little bit more about that one immigrant family in town,” Wu said in a 2020 interview with Natalie Escobar for NPR.

We see a new depiction of high school romances in Emma Seligman’s film “Bottoms” where the queer female protagonists are vulgar, unapologetic and definitely not from Squahamish, Washington. Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri star in this 2023 comedy as high school losers who start a fight club as a way of meeting girls. Havana Rose Liu, who is half-Chinese, plays the cheerleader dreamgirl and Edebiri’s love interest.

Seligman’s film is a mainstream and overt depiction of lesbianism that debuted almost 20 years after “Saving Face.” The protagonists are more concerned with impressing their crushes than whether or not their families will accept their sexualities.

Removing concerns of ostracization from the narrative is simply more realistic in 2023 than 2004. If the protagonists of “Saving Face” hadn’t worried about what their community thought about their sexualities, it just wouldn’t be believable. Same-sex marriage was not even legal in the US until 2015 – distributing any films about queerness in the early 2000s was like giving young queer folks a key to a previously locked door. It is easy to forget that this generation did not grow up with access to the same queer-accepting online communities that are available to today’s youth.

“I’m just super grateful that people connected with [“Saving Face”], especially for something I wrote that was so personal for me,” Wu said to NPR. “It just makes me feel less alone. We can all sometimes feel like we’re the only person feeling that pain, and that everybody else has figured something out.”

Generating new conversations within the Asian diaspora, the 2022 movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once” received seven Oscar awards. Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert portray the story of a Chinese American mother and daughter. The daughter yearns for her family to accept her girlfriend – to feel that her identity is accepted by her family.

The character’s queerness is not central to the storyline; she has been dating her girlfriend prior to the timeline of the film. Something about it just feels natural, and that is what is changing as we continue seeing queer Asian American women on the big screen. Stephanie Hsu’s character, Joy, is multifaceted with desires and flaws separate from her queerness. Neither her sexuality nor race are cast aside but are both depicted as important pieces of her story.

Instead of just hoping that an Asian American woman’s queerness is mentioned in a film, conversations now include the importance of representing intersectional identities and whether male-directed depictions of lesbianism can be considered authentic.

Released in 2016, Park Chan-Wook’s film “The Handmaiden” has been criticized for its arguably gratuitous lesbian sex scenes despite Chan-Wook’s goals of eliminating the male gaze from these scenes. The two main female characters are shown fully nude at multiple points throughout the film, and some viewers believe these depictions to be exploitative. Since lesbians are often fetishized by straight men, it is understandable as to why some think depictions of queer female relationships are questionable at least when directed by males.

Wu’s “Saving Face” remains a foundation of the Asian-sapphic canon. It should not be forgotten as depictions of onscreen Asian queerness continue to evolve. Modern directors are adding to the topic of intersectional representation, but works like Wu’s will always be necessary to start the conversation.

Visual Credit: Donald Tong

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