If there's anything rarer than an Asian film screening in an American movie theater, it's an Asian American film screening in an American movie theater, so give Bertha Bay-Sa Pan's Face a nice warm welcome. Set in Queens during the '70s and the '90s, this multigenerational drama bears a resemblance to The Joy Luck Club, which also pitted tradition against modernity via mothers and daughters. But if, as Tolstoy suggested, every happy family is alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then Bay-Sa Pan has found a fresh new set of grievances to drive her story forward. And she's thrown a spotlight on the patriarchal prejudice that makes it so difficult for an Asian American woman to chart a course for herself ' patriarchal prejudice endorsed by matriarchs, I might add.
Alternating between its two time-frames, Face first introduces us to Kim (Bai Ling), a stereotypically shy Chinese American woman who looks and acts a lot like the young Audrey Hepburn. Discouraged from seeing a man who's deemed insufficiently well off, Kim winds up in the arms of a rich playboy who rapes her. Then, when it's discovered she's pregnant, she's forced to marry the guy. That's how you save face, apparently. Kim holds out as long as she can, then makes a break for Hong Kong, leaving her daughter to be raised by her tradition-bound mother. Flash-forward 20 years or so and Kim, now a successful businesswoman, is back in town to see the family she left behind. But do they want to see her? Her daughter (Kristy Wu) is thoroughly Americanized, not to mention resentful as hell. And her mother (Kieu Chinh) is thoroughly un-Americanized, not to mention resentful as hell.
Much of that resentment is communicated through facial expressions and body language, for this is not a touchy-feely culture. 'It's nice to see you again,' Kim says politely when meeting her daughter for the first time in two decades. The daughter retaliates by referring to her mother as 'Kim.' At certain points in Face, it's hard to imagine these three resolving their differences. But Bay-Sa Pan holds out the possibility that they might someday. Each woman has her flaws. 'The grandmother is a bigot, the daughter is a deadbeat, and the granddaughter is a bitch,' Bay-Sa Pan told The New York Times, exaggerating for effect. What she neglected to mention is that they're also living, breathing human beings trapped in a cage they've only begun to search for a way out of.