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The Wedding Banquet
China - 1993
Directed by Ang Lee

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

A wholly delightful comedy of human nature, The Wedding Banquet taps into a rich stream of emotion via Ang Lee's light, perceptive touch. In Manhattan, Wai-tung (Winston Chao) is quite tangibly a success story. Through hard work, talent and application he's amassed a spread of property; it's fortunate that his tenants are not all like Wei-wei (May Chin) though. An illegal Chinese immigrant, she scrapes a living through waitressing and painting. Unfortunately Wai-tung doesn't meet his parent's expectations in one very important way; Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) is the love of his life. In short, Wai-tung is gay.

The never confronted problem is that Wai-tung's parents, Mr (Sihung Lung) and Mrs. Gao (Ah Lei Gua), have not the slightest inkling of his orientation. As a result romantic suggestions, dating agency forms and broad hints deluge him. In desperation Simon proposes an apparently ideal solution, one that covers a multitude of needs; Wai-tung should marry Wei-wei. That way he placates his parents, obtains a decent tax-break and helps Wei-wei acquire a Green Card. Even better, with the pressure off, his relationship with Simon is bound to improve. There's just a single flaw, in that Wai-tung's parents decide upon an American visit; after all, it is the wedding of their only son that we're talking about.

With first impressions it's important to strike just the right balance; you want to attract whomever you're trying to impress but not to the extent of betraying yourself. There's no prize for raising false expectations. Luckily Ang Lee is skilled in the art of cinematic seduction, from which The Wedding Banquet benefits. It's quite clear that this is to be a feel-good movie (ignoring the negative subtext that this label seems to carry), one that boosts spirits. Yes, this is a film where your face starts to ache halfway through because you're grinning so much! The clever part is how Lee weaves a bunch of deeper issues into the story, passing them under the audience's radar; a subtle infiltration that works because Lee understands his characters.

After seeing The Wedding Banquet it's difficult to imagine who else could have directed the film. The script is designed to work from a single vantage point, that of a Taiwanese director. Only by comprehending the people, the culture and the way in which they behave can Lee modulate each scene such that his cast approaches the brink of parody without tumbling over. In this way his creation is beautifully poised, striking a perfect emotional pitch. A wonderful example of this is the central banquet sequence, where from start to finish Lee grasps the poetry inherent. The atmosphere is so unforced, so far removed from fakery, that you can't help but be swept up by the joy. In another's hands the script might have seemed excessive and unsympathetic, but not here and now.

Consequently the cast members are an important factor in this success, each a part of the larger picture. Throughout, the five leads engage in an oddly organised dance; the emotional dynamic between two or three of the five becomes pronounced, only to die back, being replaced by a different pairing. It's an ambitious technique that works well within the context of The Wedding Banquet, a film of changes. Chao and Lichtenstein perform adequately, sketching their central gay relationship with gentle, delicate strokes. They make it important in small ways, without overshadowing everything else. Thus The Wedding Banquet isn't a stereotypically gay picture. Chin is also fine, a lonely sole buffeted by forces beyond her control. Yet it's Gua and Lung who steal the show with decency, humanity, pragmatism and hope.

Ultimately The Wedding Banquet isn't a movie you write about, it doesn't respond well to dissection. It's one that you experience, preferably with friends. Yet despite this bias, the primary themes are universal enough to stand some attention; simply put, doesn't every child feel compelled to satisfy their parents? The pressure may well be unusually intense in Asian families but the idea is inextricably bound to the parent-child relationship. For all the superficial harmony that untruths provide, Lee ably points out how honesty is the best policy; whatever the price of truth now, it's nothing compared to the inflated cost that awaits. What's amazing is that not only does Lee cover an extraordinary range of feeling in stating this, but that he wraps his message in nonjudgmental humour. A truly enjoyable movie.

Runtime:  102 minutes

Note:  The Wedding Banquet won the Golden Berlin Bear Award from the Berlin International Film Festival (1993) and the Golden Space Needle Award from the Seattle International Film Festival (1993).  The film was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994.

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