The Wedding Banquet
(Xi yan)

MGM Home Video,


Ang Lee

Ang Lee,
Neil Peng

Winston Chao,
Mitchell Lichtenstein,
May Chin,
Sihung Lung,
Ah Lei Gua

Unrated, 106 minutes

Going To The Chapel
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, October, 2009

The conventional wisdom expressed by much of queer cinema study insists that only gay directors should direct gay films. This argument has merits but ignores a few notable exceptions, one of them being Taiwan-born filmmaker, Ang Lee - the director of Brokeback Mountain (1995). Lee is straight yet managed to craft one of the most moving queer films of all time. Somehow it has been forgotten that Lee had previously tested the waters of gay cinema more than a decade earlier. The year was 1993 and the film was The Wedding Banquet. It was Lee's second film and it is a stunner.

Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) is a young businessman/landlord in his late twenties, living in New York City. His lover of five years, Simon, is played by Mitchell Lichtenstein, the son of the famous painter (his other queer credits include Robert Altman's 1983 Streamers and 1999's Flawless). They are a happy couple and their introductory scenes together are sweet without being the least bit saccharine. Wai-Tung's elderly parents send weekly letters from back home in Taiwan in which the constant question always is: when are you getting married? Father dearly wants to hold his grandson in his arms before he dies. No pressure, Wai-Tung. Just marry someone!

It goes without saying that the parents know nothing about Simon. Though he is sick of lying, Wai-Tung thinks it would kill his parents for them to know the truth. (What, no grandchildren?) So Wai-Tung goes on pretending and then Simon has an idea.

Wei-Wei (May Chin), an abstract painter, is one of Wai-Tung's tenants. She is so poor that she begs Wai-Tung to take one of her paintings as payment for three months of back rent. She is an inch away from getting deported and so Simon proposes that Wai-Tung marry her and then she can stay in the country and he can tell his parents that he's finally tying the knot. Two problems solved, right? Wrong. Before you know it, Mom and Dad are flying in from the mainland for the wedding and, as events get more and more out of hand, the reluctant bride and groom are treated to a traditional Taiwanese wedding banquet with all its attending pageantry.

The Wedding Banquet is a thoroughly delightful film from beginning to end. It begins as a screwball comedy. Mother's tape-recorded letters are a hoot; Wai-Tung is listening to one while pumping iron in the gym during the film's opening credits. Her pleadings become more and more desperate until finally she enrolls him in a dating service and sends him a questionnaire. Wai-Tung and Simon have a blast filling it out with the most impossible requirements they can think of. His ideal woman would have two doctorates (one in physics), speak five languages and sing opera. Simon's suggestion that she also be six feet tall is overruled because, after all, she is Chinese and we can't be too unrealistic. Imagine their shock when the service finds someone who meets most of the requirements (she only has one phD), and mother is flying her to New York to meet him.
In most films that would probably be the main plot but here it's only the appetizer before the main course. There is much more madness to come. The Wedding Banquet is often hilarious, but Lee also knows when to hold back for emotional resonance and so his film never explodes into flat out farce like, for example, La Cage Aux Folles or its American hybrid, The Birdcage. The humor arises from natural situations that aren't in the least bit forced or contrived.
I'd like to note that in 1993, when The Wedding Banquet played in movie theaters, the "fraud marriage to fool Immigration" storyline was unique and hadn't yet become the cliched plot device that it has turned into today. (Recent examples include the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Proposal, and TV's Desperate Housewives.) This story was still fresh then, and the film manages to remain fresh even today.
There are many surprises that I don't want to spoil. The Wedding Banquet is blessed with a fine script, excellent character development and winning performances. Lee has a talent for establishing character in the briefest of sketches. Wai-Tung and Simon are very believable as a couple. We know immediately that Wai-Tung is a workaholic and Simon is the typical put-upon wife. It is also apparent that these two guys are deeply in love. At the time of its theatrical release, most straight filmmakers were still too timid to show male intimacy (Philadelphia anyone?) and that is not the case here. Even if there is no big sex scene, Wai-Tung and Simon's relationship is not sanitized; they kiss, show affection, and are frequently seen laying in bed together. There is a terrific scene where they find a moment alone, because the parents are out shopping, and their playful affection for each other is clear and heartfelt. Even more refreshing, for its day, was the interracial element.

Wei-Wei is introduced as a very sensuous woman and it is clear that she is attracted to Wai-Tung. However, she is not a dragon lady and the thought would never enter her mind to try to come between our boys. It is worth repeating that the idea for the wedding came from Simon (he convinces Wai-Tung when he mentions the large tax deduction he can claim). Wei-Wei will enjoy the attention paid to her as a bride but she never tries to manipulate the circumstances for her personal gain. She even grows to love her new in-laws and feels much guilt over the elaborate deception. Wai-Tung's parents are richly developed characters as well and the audience keenly feels both their joy and their sorrow. You also feel for Simon as he gets pushed to the sidelines.

Viewers are in for a treat. The Wedding Banquet is a cultural feast with colorful traditions parading before the camera. Both languages are also spoken in the film to enhance this beautiful study in contrasts, both cultural and generational. Visually rich and beautifully acted, it satisfies on all levels.

This is one of those films when you really can say that you laughed and you cried. I laughed as the three principals "de-gayed" Wai-Tung and Simon's apartment. ACT-UP posters come down, a videotape of Todd Haynes' Poison is put away, a framed picture of Wai-Tung naked and holding a hat in front of his crotch is replaced by a military portrait - all to the strains of frenzied Charles Mingus style jazz. Lee hits all the right comic notes and then engages our emotions with some pretty intense, and poignant, third act drama.

Ang Lee has enjoyed quite an eclectic film career. It seems like there is no genre he cannot direct. Aside from his two queer films, he has returned to Taiwan to explore traditional Chinese themes (Eat Drink, Man, Woman - 1994), he has directed period drama (Sense and Sensibility - 1995), martial arts (Crouching Dragon Hidden Lion -2000) and the comic book (Hulk -2003). In 2005, he made cinematic history with the crossover queer hit, Brokeback Mountain and almost took the Best Picture Oscar. The Wedding Banquet is, in every respect, Brokeback's equal and should be remembered as a queer cinema classic. Check it out if you've never seen it, you won't be disappointed.


More On Ang Lee:
Brokeback Mountain
Taking Woodstock