Saturday, November 24, 2012

Film Review: The Wedding Banquet (1993)

Considering the mercurial nature of Ang Lee's career, which has seen him direct everything from costume dramas (Sense & Sensibility) to superhero movies (Hulk) by way of Oscar-winning dramas (Brokeback Mountain) and 3D extravaganzas (Life of Pi), it shouldn't be surprising that The Wedding Banquet, Lee's second film, also refuses to be pigeonholed. Its writer-director has refused to get stuck working in any single genre, so why should the film itself?

The Wedding Banquet starts out as a pretty delicious farce. Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chao) is a Taiwanese man who has been living in New York for ten years. He's built a life for himself as a successful businessman and landlord, but his very traditional parents keep asking him when he is going to settle down and start a family. Not an ideal situation, but one which is made more complicated by the fact that Wai-Tung is gay, is in a stable, long-term relationship with his boyfriend Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein, who would later go on to write and direct the vagina dentata horror film Teeth) and is afraid to tell his parents for fear that they will disown him. When his parents sign him up for a singles club, and Wai-Tung has to start going out on dates to avoid embarrassment, it seems that the weight of the lie might be becoming too much to bear. Sooner or later, his parents will find out, or he will have to tell them.

Fortunately, a solution comes in the form of Wei-Wei (May Chin), an artist who rents an apartment from Wai-Tung. Wei-Wei's visa has expired, and without a green card she is in constant danger of being sent back to China. So, in order to keep Wei-Wei in the country and to get Wai-Tung's parents off his back without confrontation, they decide to get married. Problem solved, right? Of course not.

Mr. and Mrs. Gao are overjoyed by the news, and almost immediately hop on a plane so that they can attend the wedding. Not only do the young couple have to go through with the wedding, they have to put on an act for the Gaos. Cue lots of nervous pretending and awkward conversations as the lies start piling up the closer it gets to the day of the wedding.

Despite the potential for La Cage aux Folles-style hijinks inherent in the premise, Lee and his co-writers, Neil Peng and James Schamus, use the set-up as a way of investigating the generational divide between Wai-Tung and his parents, and by extension that between other Taiwanese and Chinese families, rather than just focusing his sexuality. Everything Wai-Tung does to make the whole charade pass as quickly and painlessly as possible - such as getting married at city hall in a small ceremony and avoiding the traditional lavish wedding banquet - is construed as an attempt to be incredibly modern, ignoring traditions that have developed over thousands of years. This in turn creates tension between Wai-Tung and his parents, both of whom think that it is disrespectful for him to have a wedding that does not conform to the old ways. Besides which, since Wai-Tung is their only child, the wedding would be as much a celebration for his parents as it would be for him, and not having any of the usual trappings is a slap in the face as far as they are concerned.

After a chance meeting with an old family friend provides them with a venue, Wai-Tung is compelled to agree to a wedding banquet, one complete with hundreds of guests, many of whom feel hurt by not being invited to the wedding itself. Suddenly, the little lie that promised to solve everything snowballs into a huge, all-consuming problem.

Although the film seems to be setting up the banquet as the climax, it actually occurs about halfway through, and proves to be less of a resolution to the story than the catalyst for the film's shift in tone. Everything leading up to the banquet is fairly gentle and genial, whilst the event itself is chaotic and destructive, and everything afterwards winds up being fraught with tension and angst. After the banquet, the masquerade of Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei's marriage begins to fray the relationship between them, as well as Wai-Tung's relationship with Simon, setting up events and emotions that spend the second half threatening to burst through.

It's a change of tone that is incredibly well-executed, and the reason it works is because Lee takes the farcical elements of the story to their breaking point, finding the exact moment at which each character realises that they can't take anymore. The shift from farce to melodrama could have felt awkward and out of place, but it is so deftly handled that the two tones wind up complementing each other; the comedy of the first half introduces all of the characters at their best and makes them likable, so seeing them start to snap at each other actually has a profound impact. At the same time, the whole story is underpinned by a melancholy streak as all of the characters have to lie or be lied to. This means that even the comedy has a solid dramatic bedrock that pays off when the truth threatens to come out.

Yet Lee doesn't let everyone off the hook by wrapping everything up neatly. In the end, the lies that started the story have been replaced by an even more complicated series of lies, but they're ones that the characters are just about comfortable living with. It's a nuanced and satisfying resolution to a deeply compassionate film, one that has sympathy for every single person involved. At the time that he was working on the screenplay, Lee had been unemployed for several years as he tried to find work after film school, and his wife had to support their family during this time. This was considered embarrassing in Taiwanese culture, and whether or not Lee intended the story of The Wedding Banquet to echo his real-life experiences trying to pursue his dream in a way which ran counter to tradition, it's not hard to see how he might have had an affinity with Wai-Tung's situation.

That empathy runs throughout the film (and is something which can be seen in most of Lee's other films) and is one of the main reasons why the film resonates so strongly. It's a film that cares about its characters, made by someone who cares. Even as it highlights the differences between members of the same family, it never forgets that they love each other, without ever suggesting that love is necessarily strong enough to overcome those differences. It's a very human film, and as such is as funny and painful as the people who populate it.