Friday, February 12, 2016

The Wedding Banquet (1993)

Xi yan, Taiwan / USA, 106 minutes
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Ang Lee, Neil Peng, James Schamus
Photography: Jong Lin
Music: Mader
Editor: Tim Squyres
Cast: Winston Chao, Mitchell Lichtenstein, May Chin, Sihung Lung, Ya-Lei Kuei

The Wedding Banquet is only the second feature by Taiwan director and cowriter Ang Lee, and his first real hit. Lee went on to earn a reputation as a versatile (not to say chameleonic) filmmaker, with an ability to work across many different types of drama, from upholstered period pieces such as Sense and Sensibility to the fantastic martial arts of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the searing family story of Brokeback Mountain. He even made a superhero movie, with Hulk, though it was ultimately drummed out of the larger conceptual framework of the ongoing Marvel universe now unfolding before us, and redone by someone else.

The Wedding Banquet looks in many ways like a beginner's movie. It was a favorite of mine at the time it came out, for its sweetly sentimental resolutions, and I saw it a few times then. Coming back to it again after so much time now I was struck by how much it moves and behaves like a TV movie, the kind of thing you might find on the Lifetime channel. The premise is right out of TV sitcoms, based on misunderstandings and perceived needs to hide information from people, in order to spare their feelings. Even the way it plays out is often marked by broad comic turns, throwing in a pratfall or a character or a line for comic relief, even in the middle of significant action. That's typical TV, especially on sitcoms (and, now, "dramedies"), establishing comic rhythms that break up the action whenever it verges on becoming too serious.

At the same time, I was also struck by how much more dangerous the things these characters are doing were then. It was much more dangerous to be openly gay in 1993, the sense of that radiates from this movie. It captures a transitional moment, the period between when HIV and AIDS began to be dealt with seriously as a public health issue (after a few straight people came down with it, of course) and when gay marriage started to make real gains. In a way, it almost seems as if the TV treatment was done to soften the very real sense of illicit behavior, working on our conditioning with cues that edge it closer to family-safe territory, where it genuinely belongs.

It's a tender story, really, and always gentle, though complicated in that daffy TV sitcom way. Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chao) is a thirtysomething first-generation son of a Taiwanese couple, their only son. He works as a stockbroker, lives in Manhattan with his boyfriend Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), and dabbles in real estate investment. His tenant in a loft space is a Chinese immigrant and artist, Wei-Wei (May Chin), who is running out of time to establish herself in this country. Wai-Tung's parents (Sihung Lung, who is sneaky good as the father, and Ya-Lei Kuei) do not know Wai-Tung is gay—and they must not know, in the parlance. Not surprisingly, all they want in the world is for Wai-Tung to marry and give them a grandchild. In fact, it is their constant preoccupation.

After years of this kind of pressure, Simon and Wai-Tung hatch a plan in which Wai-Tung marries Wei-Wei to satisfy his parents and to enable her to remain in this country. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the movie is here to show and tell us the answer to that question, in the gentlest terms possible. It is the point, in the later acts, where it really hits its highs. It manages to flout convention and embrace it at once, in a one-size-fits-all ending that somehow works for everyone, or at least for me. Yes, there are assumptions made that test all believability—an amazing degree of acceptance on the part of the old man, on which everything hinges—yet everything proceeds around and through that to a most surprising and satisfying conclusion.

Along the way there is the high times of the wedding banquet sequence itself, an elaborate and hilarious party for the newlyweds that works like a wedding reception invaded by a frat party. The bride and groom ("bride and groom") are required to drink and drink and drink, and then they are hauled off to their honeymoon bed where everything required is done for them except insertion itself. It's a crazy scene, obnoxious, high-spirited, infectious, and weird. It's done so well it became the title of the movie.

The Wedding Banquet challenged hard from the margins in its time. An early romantic scene between Wai-Tung and Simon leads to the first man-on-man kiss ever in Taiwan cinema, for example, for which the movie is still famous there, drawing audible gasps of reaction in its time. The movie still has a surprising amount of audacity—even now, coming up at its end pointed in a chirpy direction that looks a lot like polyamory, and a happy New Age of greater understanding. It gets away with its outrageous (yet sensible) suggestions chiefly by donning the garb of TV entertainment. But that doesn't make it any less insightful, still, at pushing on the bounds of convention. It's funny, it's charming, and it's profound. It's a pretty neat trick this one plays.

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