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Girl-Kissing-Girl Cinema

Is it still revolutionary?

Dorothy Woodend 24 Jun

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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It's getting so you can't walk two feet without tripping over a pair of women sucking face.

It's not just the L Word, it's an l-world. But for all the same sex action, I never met a lesbian movie I've actually liked.

This is not to say that I don't like lesbians. I like them just fine, some of my best friends are lesbians, as the cliché goes. But there is something that happens when Sapphic meets cinema. They get cute, coy, sappy and saccharine -- choose your adjectives.

Saving Face, the debut film from director Alice Wu is unfortunately no exception to the rule. Wil (Michelle Krusiec) is a hot, young surgeon who works all the time, and has no time for boyfriends. This doesn't stop her mother (Joan Chen) from trying to set her up with eligible young Chinese men at weekly dances. Here is where the pack of mothers, gimlet eyed and ferocious, stand on the side lines making mating pairs and disparaging their useless husbands -- who apparently do nothing but eat and fart.

The ‘gentler’ sex?

Ugh... men. Is it any wonder that Wil prefers the gentler charms of the womenfolk? Especially, one long and lean dancer named Vivian (Lynn Chen), who, wouldn't you know it, is also a lesbian looking for love in all the wrong places.

After sighting each other at a dance, the two women move hesitantly into a relationship that could make you shriek from the sheer cuteness of it all. Would any self -respecting lesbian woman, much less any adult woman, play so helpless and timid? Like the Goddess Nike says, “Just DO IT!” and leave off the endless moony glances and insipid dialogue.

Wil's love life is complicated by the sudden arrival of her own mother, who has had the temerity to get knocked up at age 48 without the benefit of husband, and is therefore banished from Flushing. You think this would be a good thing, as it frees preggo mommy to rent lots of porno flicks, eat chips in bed, and dish the dirt with Wil's neighbour boy.

Sud-less Soap Opera

But no, she spends most her time, looking mournful and dating an odd assortment of freaks and geeks. If the movie is supposed to play like a Chinese soap opera, it could use with a few more suds. Although everyone seems to be trying very hard, it has a deadly earnestness that squashes any fun flat. Even the sexy bits feel routine and listless.

Joan Chen deserves a better film than this. Unlike the younger actresses who are almost entirely unconvincing in their love story, the lovely Ms. Chen can make you feel the layers of sorrow by merely sinking down gracefully in a hospital corridor.

Although this is only Wu's first film, and she will undoubtedly learn lots of stuff from the sheer act of making a movie, it’s painful to sit through this novice effort. The film would have benefited greatly from a firmer hand in the editing room, and a bit of script editing too. The reliance on cliches about Chinese women and their mothers makes it feel a little like the Joy Fuck Club, although there is painfully little of that activity as well.

Cutting edge trite

By the Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, what is about lesbians that makes film makers lose their ability to put a story together? Go Fish, When Night is Falling, Better than Chocolate even a relatively good film like I Heard the Mermaids Singing sink into triteness when same-sex loving rears its velvet head.

The only film on this subject that is even bearable is the Swedish import, Show Me Love, whose original title was Fucking Åmäl. Åmäl is actually the name of the dinky Swedish town in which the two teenage heroines live and love. Director Lukas Moodysson has gone on to craft some of the more provocative cinematic moments of recent years, but this is a sweetly brave movie.

Another similarly themed film opens next week, My Summer of Love is a British film about girl-on-girl action, and a very different beast from Saving Face, with girls behaving beastly with each other. These young lovers aren't particularly sweet or cute, thankfully.

‘Cool girls are getting down’

Some of the more erotic escapades aren't on the big screen but in your living room. Tipping the Velvet from writer Sarah Waters heated up the screens in the UK, as has The L Word here. And even the OC had Mischa Barton swapping sapphic spit.

But while all the cool girls are getting down, the nasty old reality of gay relationships keeps popping up. The BBC recently ran a story about the real problems that lesbian women face in other cultures -- professing to love other women can bring out the hate from family and friends, not to mention actual death.

This past week, the first gay divorce was granted to two women who were married on June 18th, 2003. After five days of wedded bliss, they broke up. If this isn't an indication of the outdated mode of white weddings, I don't know what is. Harlequin romance may be the dominant romantic style for straight relationships but why does it have to be transposed to gay relationships as well?

Scott and Scott, a gay couple who churn out hot male romance novels, might beg to differ. They argue that equality means equal access to trash culture. Although lesbian pulp is nothing new (no one has ever written as much lesbian porn as the Victorians), the crucial difference is that new lesbian romances end happily, instead of tragically.

Progressive regression

Let me claim disingenuousness here, but I've never really understood why the conventions of straight relationships should be applied to gay couples? Don't you want a way out of that stuff -- the endless dichotomy of man/woman, masculine et feminine?

Writer Rachel Kramer Bussel in the Village Voice recently asked a similar question about demonized bisexuals.

The pseudo-lebos stylings of pop culture have little to do with actual human beings, but at the same time, women and men have embraced the L Word's hot hot heat with genuine enthusiasm.

Although the influence of porn has filtered into mainstream culture, art house filmmakers would probably be horrified to think of their films in this sense. But you still can’t have the titillation without the tit part. The sexual revolution was supposed to vault us forward into a new paradigm, but instead it took us back to the 50's and my big gay wedding.

Gay or straight or somewhere in between, the sexual revolution will be televised, novelized and movie sized, it just won't be all that revolutionary anymore.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee on Fridays.  [Tyee]

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