Friday, April 18, 2014

The Wedding Banquet


Hello everybody, this is Mrs. Norman Maine writing to you from the Liza Minnelli Suite at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. I am pleased to announce that I survived my South Pacific ordeal intact and am soon to take my rightful place in the Hollywood social order in a new high profile entertainment project. When last seen, I found it necessary to abandon Fanning Island on a porta potty after having been left behind by the producers of Celebrity Survivor. Apparently, as I had foreseen, the production company ran out of funds and the filming was shut down. Helicopters came while I was taking a nap and airlifted the cast and crew off to civilization but there was some sort of mix-up with the rosters and I was overlooked and not discovered to be missing for some days. 

In the meantime, while the US Naval forces prepared a search, I was busy paddling my makeshift craft north to the Hawaiian Islands. After several days of sun and sea water, I realized I had made a few mistakes. I had completely forgotten to bring enough Lesterene brand Pineapple/Venison sun block and I really should have rinsed the porta potty out before setting sail. I don't know what would have happened had I not been spotted by a tramp steamer from Ecuador who picked me up and arranged for a Navy helicopter to get me back to Los Angeles. I have been temporarily hospitalized to be sure my prolonged exposure will have no lasting ill effects. 

On arrival in Los Angeles, I had only one thought in mind- food. I have been eating non-stop since being admitted and feel the old strength returning. I've even had films in which food plays a central role on my mind. I could not find a copy of La Grande Bouffe or Babette's Feast in my 'to view' pile so I settled on Taiwanese director Ang Lee's 1993 film, The Wedding Banquet with Winston Chao, May Chinn and Mitchell Lichtenstein. I've always been partial to good Chinese so I ordered take out from Formosa and settled in to my pillows to enjoy the movie, hoping there wouldn't be too many interruptions from vague physical therapists or nurses assistants. 

The Wedding Banquet takes place in modern New York City. Wai-Tung (Winston Chao), the son of a retired Taiwanese general, has emigrated from Taiwan and is trying to build himself a new life as a real estate entrepreneur. Wai-Tung is your typical yuppie - a bit self centered, a bit caught up in dreams of grandiosity but basically good hearted. Fortunately, he's found his perfect match in Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), a physical therapist and AIDS activist and they share a townhouse and a life in peace and harmony. Wai-Tung has never told his parents of his sexual preference or of the details of his domestic arrangements due to cultural prohibitions and so as not to destroy their illusions of his role as only son and heir. They keep signing him up with Chinese dating services and he keeps up the front, over Simon's objections. 

One day, one of Wai-Tung's tenants, the artist Wei-wei (May Chin), reveals to him that she may be deported back to China. A plan suggests itself - a marriage of convenience to get Wei-wei her green card and to get Wai-Tung's parents off his back. Everything seems simple until Wai-Tung's parents (Sihung Lung and Ah Lei Gua) make the trip to New York for the happy occasion and their expectations lead a simple civil ceremony to spiral into a huge wedding banquet with all the trappings, east and west. All five characters, uncomfortably sharing a household, get caught up in events that lead to revelations, truth, and, eventually, everyone getting at least some of what they most desire in life. 

Ang Lee approaches the material in an interesting way. He's much more interested in the contrasts and the conflicts between Taiwanese and American culture than he is in the sexuality of the characters so the film doesn't really play as a 'gay' film, even though that's a major element. It's much more a human film and Lee, who wrote with partners Neil Peng and James Schamus, as well as directed, creates a web of human relationships amongst complex characters that doesn't follow cut and dried patterns. There are moments of high comedy, moments of nearly unbearable pain, and great wisdom as each of the five principals learns something about the others, and more importantly, something about themselves. Lee's hallmark as a film maker, whether in the domestic drama of The Ice Storm or the exotic world of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has been his interest and emphasis on the ties that bind, be they familial, clan, or societal. 

The film is fully realized by the casting of five fine actors in the pivotal roles, four of them Taiwanese/Hong Kong actors with little American movie experience. They give the film a flavor of cultural authenticity in terms of body language and approach that an American production could not. The outstanding one is Sihung Lung, as the retired General Gao. He creates a loving, avuncular figure, but with a backbone of steel and it's easy to see how he could be so successful in the military. More of this fine actor can be seen in Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman in which he plays a patriarch beset by daughters in changing times. The lone American principal is Mitchell Liechtenstein (son of artist Roy) who has had an intermittent performing career over several decades. His bewilderment by cultural differences he so desperately wants to understand and his mounting frustration at being shoved to the side as the wedding plans gain steam give his character an edge and allow an American audience a way into a film that might otherwise be totally alien. 

The ultimate messages behind The Wedding Banquet are those that all of us learn daily. Family and friends are our reasons for being, no matter how crazy they may make you with idiotic good intentions. In this film, they erupt in the central banquet, a plethora of sights and sounds as hundreds of Asian extras revel in ways seldom seen. As one minor character states, 'It's the result of five thousand years of sexual repression'. The banquet's aftermath is, on some levels, devastating and on others full of hope. Lee refuses to take the easy way out and dramatizes both the positive and negative consequences of decisions and actions. 

The film is performed mainly in Chinese (with subtitles), but other scenes, where it makes cultural sense, are in English. The ability to communicate is a major theme and a part of the plot. For those who are squeamish about sexuality, there are some same sex kisses and implied sexual activity but it's treated as just another aspect of life and is inoffensive and not inappropriate for mature teens. 

Computer dating forms. Tall opera singer. Cold water flat. Large abstract canvases. Chinese wall scrolls. Chinese wedding dress. Western wedding dress. Endless photo shoot. Lotus soup eating. Hamburger cravings.

No comments:

Post a Comment