Friday, September 05, 2014

Life is a (Chinese) Banquet

A dozen years before Brokeback Mountain broke ground in its portrayal of gay characters in mainstream film, director Ang Lee made a similar statement with this little-known independent gem titled The Wedding Banquet (1993). With its practically all-Chinese cast (English-language viewers must depend on subtitles for much of the proceedings), it offers a rare opportunity to experience life through the eyes of some of the millions of immigrants who come to New York City for their chance at the American dream. It may be director Lee’s most personal film.
Director Ang Lee
Equal parts farce, comedy of manners and touching family drama, The Wedding Banquet centers upon the relationship of a well-adjusted and well-to-do gay couple who live in Manhattan, one of whom happens to be a native of Taiwan. Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) is a typical New York early ’90s yuppie, a driven workaholic who even multitasks at the gym, listening to his mother’s audiotaped letters from home on his Walkman. His lover, Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), a physician, is far more laid-back, the exact opposite of uptight Wai-Tung.

Lichtenstein, Chao and Chin
Of course, Wai-Tung has kept his sexuality secret from his traditional Taiwanese parents. His mother is relentless long-distance matchmaker, sending Wai-Tung on dates with suitable Chinese girls who live in the U.S. To put an end to the madness, Simon comes up with the idea of marrying his lover off to Wai-Tung’s female tenant We-Wei (May Chin), a native of mainland China who is desperately in need of a green card.

Wei-Wei is fun-loving free spirit, a bohemian artist who tries to make a home in one of the crumbling warehouse lofts Wai-Tung owns as an investment property. She is wildly attracted to Wai-Tung though she knows that he and Simon are in a committed relationship. But that doesn’t stop her from flirting outrageously with her handsome landlord. Wai-Tung reluctantly agrees to Simon’s marriage scheme, rolling his eyes heavenward and shaking his head. Wild child Wei-Wei is far from the perfect girl for Wai-Tung, even if he were interested.
Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) and his parents (Sihung Lung and Ya-Lei Kuei

The plan to placate Wai-Tung’s parents backfires when Mr. and Mrs. Gao announce that they’ll be arriving in New York for the wedding, forcing the threesome to take their deception to an elaborate new level. Simon and Wai-Tung quickly “de-gay” their home before the arrival of Wai-Tung’s parents from Taiwan, removing gay pride paraphernalia and intimate photos of the couple, and install a happy Wei-Wei in the house, who is delighted to finally have air conditioning. The scene is set for their charade.

General Gao (Sihung Lung) is a very serious and stoic person (it’s easy to see where Wai-Tung gets his intense demeanor from). Mrs. Gao (Ya-Lei Kuei) is the perfect wife and mother, and delighted to be a new mother-in-law to Wei-Wei. But when the Gaos discover that Wei-Wei and Wai-Tung plan to be married hastily at City Hall, they are horrified and disappointed.
The wedding at City Hall
To cheer them up after the shabby City Hall ceremony, Simon takes them all to the best Chinese restaurant in Manhattan for a celebratory meal. Here is where General Gao is reunited with a former member of his regimen, who treats Gao with the utmost awe and respect, offering to stage a proper wedding banquet for the young couple in the restaurant, which is owned by the man’s son.
With the extended wedding banquet sequence, Ang Lee masterfully illustrates the blending of  East and West, giving audiences a slice of life of the culture of Chinese-American immigrants and how they continue to honor their ancient traditions while the next generation becomes more and more westernized. We see how the wedding guests thoroughly enjoy the traditional rituals and games of the Chinese wedding banquet--a rare opportunity for these introverted Asians to let loose and have a little fun. A great scene: To ensure fertility of the union, a baby bounces on the marriage bed in the hopes that the bride will conceive on her wedding night (spoiler--she does!).

As the deception deepens, Simon and Wai-Tung find themselves in conflict, especially after the frisky wedding-night goings-on leave Wei-Wei pregnant. The tension causes ailing Mr. Gao to be hospitalized with a second stroke. Mrs. Gao is told the truth about Simon and Wai-Tung, and is devastated. Wei-Wei decides to terminate her pregnancy. The lighthearted farce has taken a dark turn. How will it end?
Simon has had just about enough
The entire cast is first-rate. Chao, Chin and Lichtenstein (the only Occidental member of the otherwise all-Chinese cast ) enjoy easy chemistry with one another as their characters drive the story, moving easily from farcical and comic to touching and meaningful moments. Lung is perfect as the strong, silent General Gao; one of his best moments is when he reveals to Simon that he knows who Wai-Tung’s true spouse is, and hands Simon the sizeable wedding dowry. Beautiful Ya-Lei Kuei is particularly effective as Mrs. Gao, loving and doting —but stubbornly unable to accept her son’s sexuality. A telling moment: As the Gaos are about to board the plane for home, they embrace Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei. But when Simon attempts to hug Mrs. Gao, she coldly pulls away from him.  

For much of the mainstream filmgoing world, Brokeback Mountain was a “big deal” in its depiction of same-sex love, but independent films like The Wedding Banquet, My Beautiful Laundrette, Maurice and Parting Glances had already been dealing frankly and intelligently with this issue for was, after all,  one of the chief topics that gave birth to the whole “indie” film movement of the 1980s and ’90s. I hope a whole new generation of gay and gay-friendly youth will discover these wonderful films, especially this rare Ang Lee delight.


William said...

I saw this on PBS and think that I liked it, but I just don't remember, as dumb as that sounds -- it wasn't that long ago. I can't imagine I would have cared for the pregnancy sub-plot but if the two guys are together at the end I could probably deal with it. I'll have to look for this again. Excellent write-up!

angelman66 said...

Thanks, William! I do think you'd enjoy this upon another viewing, as long as you're in the mood to read subtitles...for me that always requires an extra level of focus. There's a lot of subtle humor in this film, and the plot twist at the end is quite original. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts if you see it again!