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In 2004, director Alice Wu burst onto the indie film scene with Saving Face, a tender, funny rom-com about mothers, daughters, family, and sex. Long before the popularity of films like Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, or Love, Simon, her movie centered around a young Asian-American woman, Wil (Michelle Krusciec), struggling to come out as a lesbian to her strict, traditional family, only to find out her 48-year-old single mother (Joan Chen) has a secret of her own: She’s pregnant.
The movie was a critical hit, and Wu was nominated for the Breakthrough Director Award at the Gotham Awards in 2005, and Krusiec won Best Actress at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival that same year, making her the first Asian American to take home the prize. But the hype didn’t translate into major box office success. Over the years, Saving Face has grown into a cult classic, widely recognized as a movie that was perhaps too ahead of its time to break through to the mainstream.
“It’s funny because now, people are like, ‘Oh, if that movie came out today it would crush,’” Wu told Refinery29 over the phone.
Sixteen years later, Wu is back with a new movie that promises to do just that. The Half of It, which premiered on Netflix May 1, follows bookish 17-year-old Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), who lives with her widowed dad in eastern Washington State. With no real friends save for her high school English teacher Mrs. G (Becky Ann Baker), Ellie spends her time watching classic movies and reading, and ghostwriting papers for her classmates as a side-hustle. But when football player Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) comes to her for help wooing cool girl Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) — who happens to be Ellie’s own crush — she realizes this may be an opportunity to say the things she can barely admit to herself. There’s only one problem: The plan works, and with her friendship with Paul growing, Ellie finds herself having to choose between following her heart and being true to her friend. Can she have both?
Though the stories are distinct, there’s definite common ground between Wil’s story in Saving Face and what Ellie is facing in The Half of It. In fact, the latter seems like a spiritual successor to Wu’s debut. So, why the long gap in between?
“Before Saving Face, I was a computer scientist,” Wu said. “I didn’t go into it thinking I wanted to become a filmmaker — honestly I didn’t think it was going to get made! I had just written the thing as a love letter to my mom — I didn’t think it would affect the cultural conversation like it did.”
After the film’s success, she worked consistently, writing for TV shows and other projects, but not developing anything of her own. And then her mom got sick. Wu moved to San Francisco to care for her, thinking she’d be there for a short time. Those weeks turned into months, and finally, after eight months, she told her agent she was staying put.
The next few years were dedicated to self-exploration. Wu’s mom recovered, but still, the writing wouldn’t come. She got into improv thinking failing in public would help loosen the gears, to no avail. (“It just made me fall in love with improv!”)
It took breaking up from a long-term relationship for Wu to have an epiphany. “I was walking down the street, thinking, What exactly is my life about? I can’t imagine that if there’s some grander plan in the universe, that my role in this was just as someone’s good daughter, or someone’s good girlfriend. I want to be those things, but there must be something else I can be doing. And in that moment, for whatever reason, I started writing again.”
Writing Saving Face had taken Wu five years. The Half of It took five weeks, thanks to a self-imposed motivational tool.
“I wrote a check for $1,000 to the NRA, gave it to my friend, and I said, I’m giving myself 5 weeks. On August 8, if this is not a fully written script and two people read it and confirm, you are sending that check in. And then I told all my friends. It was the most stressful five weeks of my life. It was like having a thousand agents breathing down my neck.”
This was in 2016, right after Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States, and “just before Hollywood discovered diversity,” Wu jokes. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was still two years away, and the idea that a movie like Parasite could win Best Picture at the Oscars was a distant fantasy.
Still, change was in the air. While making Saving Face, Wu had to fend off constant suggestions from studio executives that she make her characters white, or straight, or both. Not this time.
“Certainly the thing that made everything easier is that there’s a global sea change [in] the 15 years between in terms of how people see the different sorts of stories you can tell. In the process of starting to make the movie, Crazy Rich Asians came out — that was incredibly helpful.”
Trump’s name is never mentioned in The Half of It, but the film still feels inexorably rooted in his shadow. For one thing, it takes place in a rural town, where Ellie and her family are one of a small handful of immigrant families. She’s a visible minority, other-ized by her peers because they’ve never really taken the time to get to know her. Her crush, Aster, comes from a conservative Christian background — the key to her popularity is fitting in. But at what cost? As for Paul, he’s a stand-in for the audience Wu would desperately like to reach: Those who, through ignorance or insularity, haven’t gotten the chance to know anyone who is different from themselves.
“Some part of me wants to understand,” Wu said. “I was a little astonished — obviously I know sexism, racism, [and] homophobia exist. But I think I hadn’t recognized how many people were so excited to voice it.”
“I make humanistic comedy,” she added. “If I can get a 55-year-old straight white conservative guy to relate to a 17-year-old Chinese American immigrant, or maybe to her father, then I’ve won. Any time you can increase the human capacity for empathy, for me, that’s the highest goal as a storyteller.”
When I ask Wu if she borrowed from her own life to create Ellie, she laughs. “People always watch my films and immediately are like, ‘Is this your story?’ And the answer is yes, but maybe not in the way that they think.”
Wu wrote Saving Face as a tribute to her mom. “She was not pregnant. I didn't grow up in Flushing. All those details are created. But she was going through a time where she felt like her life was over, like there was no point in having a love life. And I was trying to tell her that I thought that could start at any point in your life. It's also true that she had a very hard time with the fact that I’m gay.”
Similarly, The Half Of It came out of Wu’s desire to be kinder and more empathetic towards her younger self.
“The emotions are true. I’m not 17 now, but I grew up with young Chinese immigrant parents, I spoke Mandarin at home, I biked everywhere — I still do. If only I could have wooed other girls secretly through letters! That would have been the greatest thing ever.”
This interview was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated.