Queer-ly ever after: how Alice Wu’s films end realistically

Queer films Saving Face (2014) and The Half of It (2019) from director Alice Wu give their characters realistic, happy, queer endings that reflect the lived realities of queer people.

A happy life isn’t always guaranteed for queer people, as evidenced by the higher rates of suicide among LGBTQ+ youth and the dozens of Black trans women murdered annually in the U.S. alone. It’s no wonder then that we yearn to see happy endings in films portraying LGBTQ+ people. Queer happy endings in film are varied, ranging from Chiron’s newfound contentment in Moonlight to Tala winning back Leyla in I Can’t Think Straight. Two other films whose realistic happy endings recently resonated with me are Alice Wu’s 2014 film Saving Face and her 2019 film The Half Of It.

In Saving Face, Wilhelmina Pang is a successful young adult Chinese American surgeon whose family keeps setting her up with boys she isn’t interested in. A closeted lesbian, Wil also finds herself encountering a beautiful Chinese American dancer named Vivian while her unwed mother Gao becomes unexpectedly pregnant. From there, Wil must come to terms with her family’s need to save face versus the personal cost of staying in the closet.

Queer film Saving Face
Queer film Saving Face; Image courtesy: Sony

By the end of Saving Face, Wil has found the courage to be out as a lesbian while helping her mother Gao find true romance and stand on her own feet. Wil has managed to win back Vivian after Wil’s personal issues affected their relationship. She has also come to a new understanding with her mother Gao, who was in denial about Wil’s sexuality but facing family pressure similar to her daughter. Although both Wil and Gao have made happy endings for themselves, the film also shows some Chinese family members will never approve of how they live their lives.

Meanwhile. The Half Of It (2020) tells the story of teenager Ellie Chu, who helps her Chinese father pay bills by writing homework papers for other students. One day she is asked by football player Paul Munsky to write a love letter to a popular girl named Aster Flores. Although it was supposed to be just one letter, Ellie finds herself keeping up the charade of writing love letters as Paul and falls for Aster herself in the process. Having never experienced romance or life outside of her friendless bubble and small town of Squahamish, Ellie must try to figure out who and what she wants on her own terms.

Although dealing with different characters and situations than Saving Face, The Half Of It has a similar, imperfect happy ending. Neither Ellie nor Paul end up with Aster, but all three characters have come to some sort of self realization. Aster wants to apply to art school and break free from the expectations of everyone around her. Paul has taken the first steps to making sausage on his own terms instead of going along with what his family wants. Finally, Ellie has gotten a taste of what romance and life can be and has decided to take a train to Grinnell College to see what else lies in store for her.

Queer Film The Half of It
Queer film The Half of It; Image courtesy: Netflix

A major thing that connects both of these films is their imperfect happy endings result in hopeful new beginnings. While there is no guarantee that things will work out well for their respective Chinese queer female leads, these films show that there is a chance for things to improve from here on out. Ellie Chu now has a chance to explore her queerness outside her small conservative town and Wil Pang can fully embrace her queerness through her romance with Vivian. Through their endings and new beginnings, both films also connect two different coming of age queer experiences.

Although both Saving Face and The Half of It are two different films with different protagonists, they manage to connect adolescent queerness and adult queerness in a way few films have done. Depending on your experience and knowledge of queerness, you may have learned to view queerness in adolescence and queerness in adulthood as isolated experiences. Since both films feature Chinese American female queer leads at different points of life, they demonstrate that queerness is an experience with highs and lows that change as you age. Most notably, The Half of It showed a queer happy ending can be about personal growth instead of romance.

Happy endings in LGBTQ+ films shouldn’t always have to revolve around romance and be neatly resolved to matter.

When The Half Of It was first released, there were some viewers and critics who were disappointed that Ellie didn’t get to be together with Aster. Given that there is only a small handful of films featuring lesbians in love (and even fewer with women of color), this expectation is totally understandable. However, happy endings in LGBTQ+ films shouldn’t always have to revolve around romance and be neatly resolved to matter. I like sweet happy endings and stories as much as the next queer person, but sometimes it is nice to know that happy endings can be as complicated as my real life is.

After coming out to my Vietnamese mom at the age of 24, I thought things would be good. Although it took until after I graduated college, I had finally come to terms with being queer and my mom seemed okay with it at first. Fast forward six years and my mom has turned out to be not only homophobic, but also in denial about my orientation. Besides her, I also have extended family members who are homophobic and only a few biological family members in my corner. On top of that, I’m Black Asian so I’m dealing with homophobia from other people of color and occasionally being frustrated by racist white people. The only solace I have is in online spaces, fiction, geeky hobbies, and poetry.

Queer film Saving Face
Queer film Saving Face; Image courtesy: Sony

Of Alice’s Wu two films, Saving Face’s ending is the one that I connected to most since I’m a queer adult who came out in my mid-twenties. Yet my teenage self also found some small comfort in The Half Of It’s ending, since I suppressed any signs of queer longing at that time. If both of these endings signal a beginning for their characters, then they are also fuel for queer viewers to continue livng and being wherever they can find happiness. For me, queer happiness can be found in video game fan fic, LGBTQ+ comic books, Tumblr, and the occasional essay or article.

If I were to rely on sweet happy endings all the time, then I would feel increasingly disappointed when my life isn’t as sweet. Maybe this can be chalked up as looking for silver linings, but as I get older it seems I want more grounded happy endings in the media I consume. A sweet happy ending can be delicious due to its sugar and fluffiness, but a realistic happy ending has a mix of clouds and sun. The endings of Alice Wu’s films Saving Face and The Half Of It aren’t all sweet, but they are still powerful in their own realistic way.

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