USA, 2002. Not rated. 84 minutes.

Cast: Kristy Wu, Bai Ling, Kieu Chinh, Will Yun Lee, Anthony “Treach” Criss, Tina Chen, Ken Leung
Writer: Bertha Bay-Sa Pan, Oren Moverman
Original Music: Leonard Nelson Hubbard
Cinematography: John Inwood
Producers: Alex L. Fogel, Joseph Infantolino, Jonathan Shoemaker, Derrick Tseng
Director: Bertha Bay-Sa Pan


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Past and present mix together in the solid family-drama feature debut by Bertha Bay-Sa Pan, Face. In two parallel storylines that eventually converge, two young Chinese-American women butt heads with family and tradition in Queens, New York. In 1977, Kim (Bai Ling of Anna and the King) challenges her community's prejudices by pursuing a career, but is forced into a shotgun wedding after being impregnated during a date rape. In the late 1990s, nineteen-year-old Genie (Kristy Wu, of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer) challenges her community's prejudices by dating an African-American deejay, Michael (Treach, of Naughty by Nature). Thus the title of the film—Face, as in keeping or saving face.

These two women—no surprise—are mother and daughter. Kim fled New York when Genie was a baby, so both women have been raised by Mrs. Liu (Kieu Chinh of The Joy Luck Club), Kim's mother and Genie's grandmother. Though Genie spars often with her grandmother, as any teenager would, she dotes on her, too, and deeply resents her mother's abandonment. When they receive a letter from Kim announcing a visit to New York for Genie's graduation, Genie is not pleased.

Bai Ling and Will Yun Lee
Bai Ling is forced to marry Will Yun Lee in Face.

Face was made with no budget, so the period sequences aren't particularly meticulous. The World Trade Center in one shot means the footage was shot before 9/11, not that Bay-Sa Pan was able to afford a digital effect. There aren't many camera angles, either—just a master shot in most scenes.

However, the film does boast phenomenal acting, particularly from Kristy Wu, who nails teen surliness and mercurial mood swings without cartoonish exaggeration, and shares a natural rapport with Kieu Chinh, who just IS her character. (They had practice establishing a grandmother/granddaughter relationship in a small 2000 movie called What's Cooking?) Genie's anger at her mother, whom she calls by her given name, is profound, but Wu injects a suggestion of yearning into her performance—a desire deeply buried under her hostility to hear her mother's explanations, to receive her mother's love, even if Genie cannot ultimately bring herself to do so. Genie and Kim are, after all, the same. Kim also was fiercely independent. Kim also could not fit in. Kim also was constrained by her community's expectations.

Bai Ling's excellent interpretation of Kim goes from optimistic and forward-looking, to anxious and overwhelmed, to superficially diffident and cold. She cannot quite throw herself at her daughter's feet and beg forgiveness. Genie is, after all, the unwanted child of rape, representing everything that constricted Kim. (The rape, incidentally, depicted via an ominous montage, is one of the film's directorial high points.) Finally, as Genie's supportive boyfriend, Treach has a delicate take on his generic Perfect Guy role, whose non-specificity is disguised by the fact that he's African-American, he's a cool deejay, and he's got some good lines. (“Man, you're like an angry black man in an Asian girl body!”) The only problem with the casting, really, is that Bai Ling and Kristy Wu look absolutely nothing like each other.

The major issue with Face is that it lacks inventive writing. Bay-Sa Pan populates the film with a few too many stereotypical lines and supporting characters, though you could argue that stereotypes become stereotypes precisely because they are common. Still, a grandmother scolding, “You too skinny!” feels stale. More broadly, the child of immigrants who is too American for the parents is also a well-explored conflict. The unusual mother/daughter relationship here is a new twist, yet Bay-Sa Pan achieves no new insights. Still, Face is a film of considerable charm and warmth, even if the material sometimes feels well worn.

Review © August 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Indican Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

  Comment on this review on the boards  

  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page