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'The Wedding Banquet' (1993) Movie Review

Winnie Khaw graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with an English M.A. (concentration in creative writing).

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The Wedding Banquet (1993) Movie Review

Produced on the minimal budget of $750,000, The Wedding Banquet (1993), directed by Ang Lee, ranks as the highest grossing Taiwanese film in history. This madcap comedy drama centers on Wai-Tung Gao, an upward-moving Taiwanese-American businessman (Winston Chao) in a homosexual relationship with the Caucasian-American doctor Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) who marries an illegal mainland Chinese immigrant for the sake of pleasing his parents’ desire for a grandchild. Predictably in this comedy of errors, misunderstandings, and deception, the plan backfires spectacularly with fireworks worthy of any traditional Chinese wedding. Both bedroom farce and humanist drama, Wedding Banquet is for the most part a buoyant film about the importance of the individual and his personal proclivities in a society (consisting of Wai-Tung’s parents and friends) which favors conformity and precedence; Lee cleverly probes with pointed humor at traditional Chinese notions regarding sex, sexual desire and orientation in the busy city of Manhattan, New York.

Wai-Tung’s parents (Sihung Lung and Ah-Leh Gua) in Taiwan constantly entreat him to marry and give them a grandchild, even enlisting him in an exclusive singles’ club. Wedding Banquet has an entertaining time of Wai-Tung filling out his requirements for a woman for the club: tall Chinese women are something of a rarity, Chinese opera singers tend to be male, and few people have two PhDs as well as speak five languages. Unfortunately for his parents’ familial aspirations, Wai-Tung is gay; however, he cannot bear to tell them the truth and thereby break their hearts. Wei-Wei (May Chin), his penniless tenant, is in desperate need of a green card—if she does not obtain one, she must return to the mainland. Simon conceives the apparently brilliant plan of Wai-Tung entering into a marriage of mutual convenience with Wei-Wei. When Mr. and Mrs. Gao decide to visit for the special occasion, the generic conventions of a comedy—the familiar plot complications and charades—begin and make for an impending cultural collision. The initially light, playful tone gives way to drama and even potential tragedy, however, as a drunken Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei sleep with each other and the latter becomes pregnant, leading of course to a relational upset with Simon.

Stilted scenes, especially in those involving Simon—though to be fair Lichtenstein may be responding to directions to create awkward situations—are interposed with genuinely humorous moments, such as in the kitchen when the domestically impaired artist Wei-Wei pretends to be able to cook in front of Mrs. Gao, or the guest remarking at the wedding banquet, “You’re witnessing the result of 5,000 years of sexual repression.” The conveniently happy though ambiguous ending prevents this film from reaching any true depths despite it honestly showing very human reactions to the stressful environment created by individuals who want only the best for each other. I feel that I ought to have acquired a sense of compassion for the characters and a hope that all obstacles will be overcome by friend and lovers, but on a personal level, while I emphasized with their difficulties, I found that I did not particularly care for Wai-Tung or Simon. The performances by Chao and Lichtenstein were only fair, certainly not on par with the experienced, nuanced acting of Sihung Lung and Ah-Leh Gua, or even the spirited and emotional showing of May Chin.

As the titular sequence, the Wedding Banquet is a familiar and perhaps nauseating (in terms of excessive alcohol intake and other reasons) function to the Chinese people. Swathes of red, a lucky color in Chinese culture and customary for marriage ceremonies, decorate the rooms and permeate the clothing of the bride and groom. From my conservative contemporary American point of view, the rites to be observed take an inordinate amount of time, the newlywed couple are subject to irritating pranks and jokes, the food continues to be eaten until the guests become ill, an incredible amount of money is spent, and other such unpleasant things, but the occasion is cause for Wai-Tung’s parents to rejoice. Nevertheless, the omnipresence in Wai-Tung and Wei Wei’s life of the odd man out Simon, who in addition can only understand minimal Chinese, cannot be explained at every event. The surprising acuity of Mr. Gao and his acceptance of the situation makes for the actual reality, devastating to Mrs. Gao, less painful and makes the audience wonder, as in many comedies, what the lengths of trouble were really about.

The plot does suffer from necessarily artificially contrived circumstances, though Wedding Banquet benefits from the intelligent decision to have action take place within the confines of buildings and rooms, metaphorically indicating the feelings of being trapped by the three main characters. The script, written by Lee and Neil Peng, is sympathetic to the parental point of view, portraying Mr. and Mrs. Gao not as dire foes of liberalism and true love but rather members of an older generation who have understandably different perspectives from their more modern, Americanized offspring. As with other more thought-provoking films, Lee has inserted within the microcosm of Wedding Banquet a macrocosmic message: the farcical marriage between the Taiwanese Wai-Tung and the mainland Chinese Wei-Wei can be taken as a commentary on the larger political scene. The conflict between filial piety, tradition, and cultural acceptance is lightly addressed but not explicitly answered. As with the later 1994 Eat Drink Man Woman, the communication issues between family members prevalent in many Asian and Asian-American families causes trouble, a theme Lee carries through in several of his cinematic productions.

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