Ang Lee’s first hit is now on BluRay from Olive Films.
Before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, director Ang Lee filmed low-budget indie The Wedding Banquet. The 1993 film about a gay man bending to parental pressure has a plot verging on screwball comedy but balanced by family drama.
Wai Tung (Winston Chao in one of his first roles) lives with his longtime partner Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein, later to direct Teeth) in Manhattan, receiving audiotaped messages from his mother (Ya-Lei Kuei, Eat Drink Man Woman) in Taiwan trying to match him with a good woman. In order to help their Chinese friend Wei Wei (May Chin, now a politician in Taiwan) get her green card, Simon suggests that Wai Tung marry her and appease his parents at the same time. Wei Wei’s strong affection for Wai Tung and the sudden arrival of his parents in town complicate the situation.
The devotion between Wai Tung and Simon is central to the work, but the relationship between Wai Tung and his parents provides the impetus and momentum for the story. Lee and his regular collaborator James Schamus co-wrote the screenplay with Neil Peng, inspired by Peng’s own relationship. When the film was being made, Lee had difficulty casting for the gay lead characters and gay marriage was illegal.
Sihung Long, who appeared as a patriarch in multiple films by Lee, plays Mr. Gao, a father healing after a stroke who yearns for a grandson. He and Ya-Lei Kuei are impeccable as the parents whose arrival muddles their son’s plan. After a quiet civil ceremony, an old war buddy of Mr. Gao offers to throw the newlyweds a lavish banquet. These festivities are the pinnacle of the film, kicking off further problems for the false couple (and the main duo).
A crowded hotel room post-banquet calls to mind the celebrated cabin scene from A Night at the Opera. It’s incredible what Lee and his crew were able to pull off on their limited budget, given the lushness of the party’s set design. In this second of his movies— to be followed by Eat Drink Man Woman — the director contrasts family units and explores the restrictions of tradition and cultural expectations.
Wai Tung loves his parents and hates to disappoint them, but feels diminished by not being his true self with them. Chao and Lichtenstein have a simmering chemistry; Chin plays Wei Wei as an artist who is homesick for her family (but wants to stay in America) and welcomes acceptance by the Gaos.
Even with all the miscommunications and false hopes, there’s an underlying sweetness to the film. The gracefulness of the closing shots moves me with each viewing. The Wedding Banquet seems very of its time, but should be required viewing for any fan of Ang Lee’s ouvre. Lee himself even makes a brief cameo.
The print can be fuzzy at times, but overall picture quality is fine.
Special features include the theatrical trailer and a short film: A Forbidden Passion. The short consists of director Lee and producer/co-writer James Schamus discussing the conception of The Wedding Banquet and behind-the-scenes memories.