2017 saw the release of the fantastic romantic comedy The Big Sick, which adapts the real life relationship of actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, writer and therapist Emily V. Gordon. The story delves into the culture clash between the Muslim traditions of Nanjiani's family and his American lifestyle. It shares a number of similarities with The Wedding Banquet: both are accessible comedies for American audiences about the complexities of foreign cultures (which, depending on the viewer, may apply beyond race to the life of a gay man), told through the universal prism of parental pressure in romantic relationships. There is a tenderness and authenticity to both movies that makes them special...even if The Wedding Banquet does approach one plot point in a way that has not aged so well over the last 20+ years.
Director Ang Lee, working with longtime writing and producing partner James Schamus, and co-writer Neil Peng, approaches Wai-Tung's relationship without any fanfare, which makes Banquet's approach to LGBTQ representation feel ahead of its time. Unlike other mainstream Hollywood offerings from the '90s, such as Philadelphia, Lee is unafraid to present both emotional and physical intimacy on the screen no differently than a film about a straight relationship. The screenplay also rarely focuses on society at large as a catalyst for conflict rather than general relationship issues, and culture-clash problems created when Wai-Tung's parents decide to fly to America and stay with him for the wedding (Simon ends up pretending to be Wai-Tung's housekeeper). Many underrepresented groups have voiced their exhaustion at every "inclusive" film being about oppression, so it's nice that The Wedding Banquet is just a light, screwball comedy about the hoax Wai-Tung, Wei-Wei, and Simon are hoping to pull off. Lee is not a "wacky" filmmaker, and the comic twists and turns in the script are generally grounded and filled with believable warmth and wit, whether that's the intentional and unintentional microaggressions Mr. and Mrs. Gao place on Wai-Tung, or just the challenge for Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei to keep up the charade.
Lee has also assembled a fantastic cast. Chao is a perfect pick for Wai-Tung: he's strikingly handsome, deftly balances a cold or emotionless exterior with a warmth and kindness that shows through in his romantic scenes with Simon. Lichtenstein -- now better known as a director himself, having made the vagina dentata horror flick Teeth -- shares great chemistry with Chao as Wai-Tung's better half, selling the lived-in authenticity of their relationship, and he displays some crack comic timing taking on the role of Wai-Tung's "housekeeper." Chin adds a sharp-edged energy as Wei-Wei, frequently taunting and mocking Wai-Tung with a wit that gives the film a bit of bite to go with its sweetness. It's then even more fun to watch as she's forced to cover up that attitude while playing the loving fiancee. Kuei and Lung shine in key moments as Wai-Tung's parents, both in comic and dramatic modes. The script deftly balances each character's screen time with one another, finding new dynamics to explore even right up to the end of the movie. Modern audiences may find it awkward how Lee and the writers avoid coming to a clean conclusion, leaving certain plot points dangling in a limbo between suspension and resolution, but the tone and performances remain consistent throughout.
Unfortunately, that tone also clashes with one crucial development, in a way that casts a bit of a cloud over the movie around halfway through. Early in the film, the script sets up Wei-Wei's attraction to Wai-Tung. She knows he's gay, but that doesn't stop her from wishing he would be with her. With Wai-Tung's parents focused on wanting a grandchild, this turns out to be the seed for a plot twist that plays poorly in the more socially aware 21st century. On the wedding night, with Wai-Tung exhausted from the stress of keeping up appearances and constant intrusions by nosy friends and relatives, Wei-Wei takes advantage of him and sleeps with him over his vocal protests, and becomes pregnant as a result. Based on dialogue later in the film, this actually seems to stem from Wei-Wei's mistaken notion that she could "turn" Wai-Tung from being gay, something people in the '90s may have actually believed. Although Lee and the other writers aren't among them, Wei-Wei's mistake is clearly intended as a sympathetic misunderstanding when it plays as rape. The plot thread is key to the remainder of the movie, creating an unintentional but nonetheless uncomfortable vibe the film never fully recovers from.
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