The Wedding Banquet (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
Tired of his parents’ nagging about marriage and grandchildren, Wai-Tung (Winston Chao), a businessman nearing his thirties, informs them that he is going to marry Wei-Wei (May Chin), an artist. However, it is a ruse. Wai-Tung actually lives with his caucasian lover, Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), and Wei-Wei is a tenant who needs a green card. It is believed that a false marriage will benefit everyone: traditional Chinese parents will be happy, Wai-Tung will get a tax break from an upcoming business deal, and Wei-Wei will not have to get deported. If Wai-Tung is happy, so is Simon. When Mr. and Mrs. Gao (Sihung Lung, Ya-lei Kuei) decide to visit their son, however, the ploy turns exponentially complicated.
There are plenty of movies that focus on either the comedy or drama of an LGBT person’s fears about parents finding out about his or her secret lifestyle, but there are very few that manage to do both, often simultaneously in one scene, while maintaining a complex level of insight and control. “Xi yan,” also known as “The Wedding Banquet,” directed by Ang Lee, tackles a specific perspective, the homophobia in an Asian culture, and allows it to unfold with a right balance of lightness and seriousness, tradition and modernity.
The humor is savage and quick, very rarely lingering on a joke that may inevitably turn a situation sour. A recurring technique involves the camera cutting onto an image or action that is slightly amusing or downright funny during a serious conversation, most commonly employed when a meal is shared by the five central characters. It is true to life. All of us have been in a situation where a pleasant conversation turns into a heated and forceful expression of opinions over lunch or dinner. It is awkward to get up from the table and eat some place else, especially if it so happens to occur in a restaurant, so we remain seated and give others who are not involved that look of, “Oh, here we go!” or “Can you believe this is happening right now? Awkward!”
The smaller a situation is played, the funnier it gets when punchlines are delivered. However, there are moments of genuine sadness, too. The gift-giving scene that takes place between Wai-Tung’s mother and Wei-Wei and then Simon and Wai-Tung’s parents is an exercise in contrast. With the former, it is more touching than comedic; the handing and receiving of the gifts has an air of formality, very dignified, traditional. It underlines how important it is for Mrs. Gao that the wedding is going to happen, that her only son will have a shot at her definition of happiness.
With the latter, it is played mostly for laughs but not entirely. Simon hands over his gifts as he would to a friend. He is so nervous, he actually tells them what is inside instead of waiting for them to open it. Mr. and Mrs. Gao barely touch their presents and do not quite know what to do with them. So when Wei-Wei enters the adjacent room in the background, there is an excuse to escape the situation, the gifts are quickly set aside, and the parents run to her. An image of a traditional Chinese family rests in the background (the fantasy) while the white gay lover remains alone on the foreground (the reality), his back facing the camera and observing what he can never offer Wai-Tung’s family–no matter how hard he tries.
This image defines the picture. Even if Wai-Tung finds the courage to tell his parents that he is gay and Simon is his partner, a gift that he can give them because it communicates honesty and trust, it is a real possibility that there is always going to be a part of them that will hope their son will “change” and lead a heterosexual life. There are fewer tragedies than parents not really knowing their children for who they really are. Even sadder is some parents actually choose this route and make it a traumatic experience for everyone.