June 11, 2020

The Wedding Banquet (1993)
Grade: 69/100

Director: Ang Lee
Stars: Winston Chao, May Chin, Mitchell Lichtenstein

What it's about. Ang Lee's second movie is set in New York City despite a bilingual Mandarin-English screenplay. Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) are a young adult gay couple. Wai-Tung, a businessman, is a naturalized immigrant from Taiwan. Simon is white, and works as a physical therapist.

Wai-Tung is the landlord of Wei-Wei (May Chin), who has a crush on the disinterested Wai-Tung. She faces deportation to her native mainland China. Meanwhile, Wai-Tung's Taiwanese parents (Sihung Lung, Ah-Lei Gua) press him to marry, unaware he is in a gay relationship.

A solution is obvious. Wai-Tung will marry Wei-Wei, which will simultaneously placate Wai-Tung's parents and allow Wei-Wei to remain in the U.S. The "couple" will live together under one roof with Simon.

But the parents are so excited to learn of Wai-Tung's engagement that they arrive in New York for a two week visit. The mother intends to arrange the wedding for her son. Simon, Wai-Tung, and Wei-Wei intend to keep up the ruse of a legitimate marriage for the parents, since the father's health is dubious and the shock might take him out.

The parents are disappointed by Wai-Tung's civil ceremony. They want a traditional lavish wedding banquet. Wai-Tung resists, but is unable to say no when an old friend of Wai-Tung's father offers to pay for it. A comedy of errors ensues, with the mood eventually turned gloomy, then revived.

How others will see it. Ang Lee's first feature, Pushing Hands, drew local attention, but it was his second movie, The Wedding Banquet, that attracted international acclaim. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at both the Oscars and Golden Globes. It was also successful at Taiwan's big film festival, the Golden Horse, where it won five awards, and at the Independent Spirit Awards, where it took home no trophies but secured six leading nominations.

Despite the film's age, from the dawn of the internet, it has more than 13K user votes at imdb.com. The user rating of 7.6 is high, and shows only a modest generation gap (those under age 30 grade it 7.9). There is no gender or international gap.

The movie shows respect for all five lead characters, and even the mother-in-law's shock (from learning that her fine young son is gay) is muted. She doesn't hit anyone with an umbrella, or shout at the top of her lungs. As a result, the gay community is mostly happy with it, and devotees of Ang Lee are also pleased.

Genuine criticism is scarce, but a small minority of viewers don't like the plot twist of the groom impregnating the bride, since he is supposed to be gay. There seem to be no homophobes venting anger.

How I felt about it. The film has several improbable events: the groom's parents visit for two weeks, a restaurant manager just happens to know the senior Gao and volunteers to fund a lavish banquet, the gay groom consummates the marriage, the bride becomes pregnant from this single time, she knows she is pregnant within a week, she insists on having an abortion while the parents are still in town, the romantic trio argue loudly in front of Wai-Tung's parents, and the parents are told that Wai-Tung is gay and his marriage is a sham.

The rollout of these unlikely plot twists is annoying. Why couldn't the parents return home to Taiwan uneventfully, never told the truth about their son? And the Three's Company trio could live together happily thereafter, with the traditional elderly Taiwanese parents blissfully unaware.

But a plot is not everything, and the rest of the film is quite good. The cast is excellent, and the direction and screenplay are solid. Sihung Lung's character is less developed than his corresponding role in Eat Drink Man Woman, but Ah-Lei Gua, the Dragon Lady from Eat Drink Man Woman, is surprisingly sweet here. I thought Lichtenstein (as Simon) did an even better job than Winston Chao, though both are fine. May Chin (Wei-Wei) arguably has the most difficult role, but she is up to the task despite the obscurity of the rest of her film career.