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‘The Wedding Banquet’ (NR)By Megan Rosenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 27, 1993
"The Wedding Banquet" is being presented as a zany comedy, complete with promotional fortune cookie giveaways in theater lobbies. But it's really a sweet, perceptive story about the cost of deception and the power of family rituals.
Written and directed by Ang Lee, a Taiwanese trained in the United States, and featuring well-known Taiwanese in four of the five lead roles, the film is almost entirely in Chinese. The subtitles are sometimes hard to read, but using the language (as opposed to dubbing) adds texture and enhances the cultural dislocation that is at the heart of the movie.
Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) and Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) have lived compatibly as a gay couple for several years in a chic Manhattan brownstone. Wai-Tung, an emigre, is a successful if harried entrepreneur, the benign slumlord of a building in which a struggling young artist named Wei-Wei (May Chin) is allowed to live.
Constantly pressured by his parents in Taiwan to marry and give them a grandchild, Wai-Tung unenthusiastically fills out the computer-dating forms they send, hoping that if he asks for a tall opera singer who has two doctorates and speaks five languages he will be off the hook when such a paragon can't be found. That idea backfires, so when his artist-tenant Wei-Wei is about to return to China because she can't get a green card or a job and Simon points out that marriage also provides a tax deduction, the plot is delivered.
After Wai-Tung's parents arrive to attend the wedding, it becomes apparent how much this event, a sham and a joke to the participants, means to them. Only a stone could resist their tender gestures of affection to Wei-Wei, the distribution of traditional gifts and the mother's wedding gown, their genuine joy at the prospect of another generation. The young couple tries to resist having a big wedding and opts for a shabby civil ceremony, but the parents are so sad and ashamed, it is inevitable that the requisite hoopla will be arranged.
This is truly the Wedding Banquet from Hell; the party that ate Manhattan. I suppose every ethnic group has its own version of the endless and excruciating nuptial nightmare, with many rituals designed to embarrass the bride and groom, but the one depicted here is almost entirely charmless. "I thought the Chinese were supposed to be shy and quiet," mutters one Western guest as the festivities threaten to turn into a mass building code violation. By the end, guests are throwing up violently in the men's room, which seems to be a sign that the party has been a big success.
But, as with every event in this thoughtfully directed movie, the party has its purposes. The rest of the movie is a kind of grand cleanup, as Wai-Tung tells his mother the truth, and the young people realize the cruelty and selfishness of their deception. By the end, it's hankies all around as they make a pact that allows everyone to get what they want.
Refreshingly, Lee and co-author Neil Peng do not simply condemn the act of deception and moralize on the wages of the sin of anti-homosexual prejudice. The effects of self-imposed closeting are seen clearly in the tension and anger that flare up among the three young people, but the pain of parents who long for grandchildren is palpable too. Deception has its purpose, Lee suggests, as long as it is used sparingly -- and you can keep a secret.
"The Wedding Banquet" includes some profanity and mild love scenes between two men.
Copyright The Washington Post