Friday Film Review: The Wedding Banquet
This is one of Ang Lee’s earlier movies and he uses it to show a cross cultural match up of Taiwanese and American, GLBT and straight. It’s got humor, love of many kinds, a bit of pathos and a lot of understanding – even if not everybody realizes they’re in on it at the same time. Oh, and it’s got a wedding – which is blah – and a wedding banquet – which is a blast.
Wai Tong Gao (Winston Chao) is a successful businessman living in New York with his lover Simon (Mitchell Lichenstein). Wai’s traditional parents pressure him to find the perfect (Chinese) girl, get married and present them with a grandchild. Tired of them spending money on a singles club in order to find him a bride, Wai and Simon hatch a plot for Wai to marry one of his tenants Wei Wei (May Chin) who needs a green card to stay in America. She gets to stay, the parents are happy and will hopefully leave Wai – and Simon – alone to get on with their happy lives.
Thinking they only have to fool the INS (now ICE), Wei Wei and Wai work on getting to know each other enough to pass the immigration tests. Only when the Gaos suddenly announce they’re coming to NYC to see the wedding, it throws everyone into a panic. Still, if the three conspirators can hold it together and remember their roles for two weeks, all will be well. That is until Simon takes them all out to dinner after the ceremony where they discover an old comrade of Mr. Gao’s who insists on throwing a wedding banquet for the couple to honor his old commander.
After an alcohol filled and riotous party, the bridal couple is put to bed where things, er, get out of hand. Now an ill Mr. Gao delays the older couple’s departure and tempers begin to heat up and fray as the deception drags on. Will Simon, Wai and Wei Wei be able to conceal the truth from Wai’s parents? And what will happen to Simon and Wai’s relationship when the results of the wedding night become known?
Lee manages the whole meeting of cultures and lifestyles with a light and deft hand. The plot could have bogged down in overly sentimental moments, such as during the ceremonies or the points when the Gaos separately learn or admit knowledge of what’s been going on, but doesn’t. Instead, the scenes are brief or lightened with humor such as when Mr. Gao’s wedding speech induces Wei Wei to start crying and the entire female contingent rushes her off to prevent ruining her makeup. A fight between Simon and Wai after weeks of frustration boil over makes their relationship more real instead of being too, too perfect.
The “pull out all the stops” wedding banquet is a riot explained, says one guest, as 5,000 years of sexual repression let loose for this occasion. The ritual wedding humiliations – from two cultures! – including excessive toasts that render Wai and Wei Wei more than sloshed, are enough to make the actions which follow a bit more believable. The twin pressures from Wai’s Asian heritage: his parent’s wish for a daughter-in-law then grandchildren and the “still not as accepting of being homosexual” culture work together to make what could have been a hard plot to swallow more understandable and acceptable.
I really like that here is a movie featuring a gay couple that isn’t centered on disease or coming out or any other political agenda. It’s just two men who love each other and want to live together. They have their good times and they have some arguments along the way. They have friends, they have jobs, they have a life. They look after each other, sacrifice for each other and in the end, along with Wei Wei they’ll develop a new family dynamic that works for them. But this isn’t the only relationship Lee shows us. We get triple bonus points in the sweet view of the Gao’s relationship which has obviously weathered some storms in the past from what Mrs. Gao tells Wei Wei, a touching scene between Wei Wei and her new MIL – where we see how much the older woman’s presence means to the younger woman whose own parents can’t be there, and a final scene of Mr. Gao’s acceptance of Simon as a second son.
The way the characters interact and obviously care for each other is another reason why this film works so well for me. Plus they seem real. Wai is a successful business man but also a deeply loving and respectful son. Simon and Wai seem like any other couple instead of being poster boys for a cause. Wei Wei starts out just going for the green card yet discovers in the Gaos substitute parents and in the men, two fathers for her child. It might be an odd arrangement but for them it works. I also felt a great deal of sympathy for these people. Yes, the Gaos pressure their son but after the upheaval of their lives and the difficulty of Wai’s birth, I see how much the future, through their son and grandchildren, means to them. Poor Simon is just trying to help everyone out and ends up precipitating the whole mess then having to watch the man he loves marry someone else, even if Wai’s not really in romantic love with his bride.
Like another film I reviewed, “Saving Face,” this one is a modern mix of Gay life and Asian culture without being strictly of either genre. It has its funny moments, thoughtful times and moving scenes. It makes me glad that the “Newlywed Invasion” isn’t an contemporary American custom – though perhaps it’s better than the old shivarees. It doesn’t point fingers or make a case that either side is right or wrong but allows viewers to decide as it goes along – or perhaps still be thinking as the credits are rolling. B