The Wedding Banquet
MGM // R // $14.95 // June 15, 2004
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted May 23, 2004
Highly Recommended
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Ang Lee's film career has really run all over the storytelling landscape, from 18th Century England in Sense and Sensibility to the chilly 1970s in The Ice Storm, the fantastical swordplay of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the comic book mayhem of The Hulk. His earlier films were far more intimate and personal in a way. The Wedding Banquet fits together with Pushing Hands and Eat Drink Man Woman as an ode to the collision of traditional Asian values with modern life. The Wedding Banquet was particularly bold because it didn't just bring a different cultural point of view, it's also one of the most casually gay films ever released. While the keeping-it-secret-from-the-folks angle touches on big issues for any gay person (especially one from such a traditional background), the film itself treats the main relationship as matter of fact, something that's really refreshing after all the gay coming-of-age stories.

But The Wedding Banquet isn't some narrowly-focused niche film. It's really one of the most emotionally honest and thematically complex films from the 80's-90's indie film boom. It's also very funny, touching and lively. And, happily, it has aged extremely well (thanks to a clean style and fine performances) and should appeal to a broad range of audiences.

The film starts by introducing Wai Tung (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), a gay couple living in lower Manhattan. Wai Tung, an accountant and landlord, is the more serious of the two, with Simon (who appears to be an artist or activist or something) the more romantic. Wai Tung has the usual pressures from his Taiwanese parents: To settle down and marry a nice Chinese girl. This pressure comes in the form of audio tapes narrated by his mother's concerned voice and women from marriage-minded dating services. Wai Tung gives a tall order for a would-be bride (multilingual-double PhD-opera singer), hoping they'll come up empty handed. His stalling is only meant to hide his homosexuality but instead he just causes them to step up their efforts.

He also has a tenant, a squatter/painter named Wei-Wei (May Chin) with a problem of her own: She has no green card and is unable to find a legitimate job or apartment. At Simon's urging the two combine their problems and decide to get married, giving Wei-Wei legal status and Wai Tung a bride. Problem solved.

Until, of course, the message comes from the folks. They want to visit and attend the wedding. This reads like a sitcom plot, but Lee's film is so spry and loose and the actors (especially Chin and Chao) are so charming that it never becomes too cute for its own good. Things only get better once the parents arrive. Played by Sihung Lung (who starred in all of Lee's early films) and Ah Lei Gua, they tread the fine line between caricature and honest depiction, using the entire film and the broad range of emotions it spans to really craft memorable performances. These are two outstanding actors doing outstanding work. As the lie gets deeper and deeper (culminating in the rowdy wedding banquet itself: As the director says in a cameo "you're witnessing the results of 5000 years of sexual repression.") the parents become richer and richer characters. The central issue of their son's sexuality becomes only one in a pallette of personal dramas that this small cast has to deal with. And sometimes the emotional ties come in unlikely combinations. By the end of the film everyone among the five main characters shares a secret with one of the others. These aren't secrets that come from suspicion however, but rather out of love and respect.

I've praised the cast, and they are all very good at both comedy and drama (and combining the two) but I really want to single out the great Sihung Lung, who plays Wai Tung's father. Sihung, who passed away in 2002, is a rock of pride and strength in the film. He also perfectly portrays an ailing man who, thanks to a stroke, has to take it slow. He holds the screen with perfection every moment he's in. The film is terrific; Sihung is superb.

I was not expecting much visually from this disc, having seen The Wedding Banquet some years ago and remembering it as a typically low-budget production. Instead, I got a feast of beautiful imagery. Sure, it's still grainy and some scenes are clearly compromised by locations or lighting. But overall, this is a textured and subtle visual film. Colors are crisp and lively and the picture is sharp. It is anamorphic widescreen. Many thanks go to MGM for doing this small film right.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack is fine. It's nothing exceptional but voices are clear. It's in English and Mandarin, with subtitles for the Mandarin dialog. It is also available in Mandarin and with English, Spanish and French subtitles (for the whole film).

For such a cheap disc the extra feature is pretty nice. It consists of an interview with director Ang Lee and his co-writer/producer/snappy dresser James Schamus. The short piece does a nice job of showing how the film was important both for Lee's career and for expressing some very personal experiences. An excellent addition.

A corny trailer is also included.

The Wedding Banquet fits perfectly into a lot of niche film categories: Indie, queer, immigrant. But really it transcends those labels. It's so human and honest that people who may never have seen a gay film before will find themselves sympathizing with the characters. Thanks to sharp writing and excellent acting it's withstood the test of time so far. It does make the viewer wish that Lee would get back to this personal style and ditch the comic books.

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