Even after two features, “I still am not somebody who is like, ‘I am a filmmaker. What film shall I make?’" Wu said. Regardless, Wu is indeed a filmmaker and an important one at that. She came onto the scene in 2004 with the film “Saving Face,” a dramedy about a woman who is closeted, and her mother, who is pregnant and unwed. It was the first Hollywood film featuring a Chinese-American cast since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club." There wouldn’t be another major American studio film with a predominately Asian cast until 2018's “Crazy Rich Asians.”
And Wu wouldn’t have another writing and directing credit until 2020, with “The Half of It,” which is now on Netflix. It's a delightful spin on Cyrano de Bergerac, where a nerdy girl helps a dim-witted jock write love letters to the girl they both love.
Nancy Yuen, a Los-Angeles based sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism,” said Wu is “a fascinating director.” “Wu captured immigrant life authentically before that was acceptable in Hollywood,” Yuen said. “She was making a movie like ‘The Farewell’ but 16 years ago!”
And both of her films focus on a lesbian lead: “A rarity not only in Asian American films but all films,” said Yuen. Why the long gap between films? It’s more complicated than the all-too common one where a woman directs a feature and then can’t get another made for over a decade. But nothing about Wu’s story is conventional.
“As a kid I certainly never thought I could be a filmmaker. But I read a lot of books,” Wu, 49, said. “In the back of my head, I thought someday when I retire, maybe I’ll write something.” As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Wu’s goal was stability. It's why she ended up in computer science before it was, she said, a “hot career.” But then she found herself downright bored with her Microsoft job, which had turned into a series of endless meetings about mission statements. So she started writing.
“It made me remember what it felt like to be passionate about something,” Wu said. She wrote what she knew and realized that film was the perfect way to tell her story. “Growing up Chinese, nobody tells each other what they think,” she said. “Everything is unspoken. So film is a wonderful medium for that, where you have moments where you can show a character who’s not aware they’re being observed. You can actually show the truth and we get to suddenly see what they’re really feeling.”
With encouragement from a writing teacher, Wu gave herself five years to give Hollywood a shot. And it worked. “The choice seems so easy now because the film did get made,” Wu said. “But at the time I was agonizing over it.”
Will Smith and Teddy Zee produced “Saving Face,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Sony Pictures Classics distributed it. But Wu wasn’t prepared for the “what’s next” question. She still couldn’t believe that her “insane pipe dream” had come true.
Wu stayed in Hollywood doing work-for-hire writing projects and was about to have a big break with a series about women in tech when the writer’s strike happened and her mother had a serious health scare in 2007.
“I dropped everything and went to San Francisco,” she said. A few weeks turned into a few months and a few months into years. “I thought I’d left the industry entirely,” Wu said. But Wu’s mother recovered and she started to think about purpose and her future. That led her to writing again, and, eventually to “The Half of It.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu tweeted that Wu was “a pioneer” who was “way ahead of her time when I was first in awe of her and now the world has caught up.” And the landscape in Hollywood is quite different now for an Asian American filmmaker who wants to tell Asian American stories with the success of films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell," and shows like “Fresh Off the Boat." Netflix has also had a fair number of projects including “Always Be My Maybe," “Master of None," “ Tigertail " and “To All The Boys I've Loved Before.”
Wu said she never felt limited by the facts of her life. “I’m an Asian lesbian. I’m an immigrant. I feel like they’re as American as anything else,” she said. “The good thing is now people seem more open to it.”
And this time she has a few stories she’s been sitting on that she’d like to tell. In other words, it probably won’t be another 16 years before the world gets a new film directed by Alice Wu.