Does Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” Break Backs?

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Once I was old enough, I spent my summer breaks at home instead of having to go to a day care. My parents both worked, so I wound up spending many of those days home alone. While I did have chores that needed doing and friends that I could see, most of my day was spent doing whatever I liked, and it was my first taste of independence.  

One summer day while flipping through channels, I came across this movie that showed a Chinese wedding. While they were dressed in western clothes, they were engaging in various wedding games that seemed foreign to me based on the Southern weddings I had attended up to that point.

I must have continued searching channels, but upon returning I was transfixed by what I saw. Two men entered an apartment and began to kiss, tear at each other’s clothes, and they were practically undressed by the time they got up stairs, where they unexpectedly found one of the men’s father. They proceeded to discreetly dress and tend to the older man’s health, hoping he hadn’t heard their discourse that would have led to intercourse.

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While I had had my own experiences of this nature despite my youth (which is a long story on its own…), this was my first time seeing this in a film or in any way depicted on TV. I immediately identified with their need for secrecy, their fear of discovery, their worry of disappointing family. Basically, that was all reality for me and my young mind was both exhilarated at the chance to see other people, albeit fictional, with whom I could identify, and deathly afraid that this would also be the tragic path my life would follow because of being gay.

The movie was 1993’s “The Wedding Banquet,” by Ang Lee who is also known for “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and that other famous gay flick “Brokeback Mountain.”

The film is about a Taiwanese man who is living his life as a gay American openly and happily with his partner in New York City. Half a world away in his homeland, his family is constantly harping on him about getting married, going so far as to send potential brides to visit him. Eventually, this pressure builds to the point where Wai’s partner Simon suggests that he marry a Taiwanese tenant Wei Wei, who fears her time in America will soon end with deportation if she can’t find a job or a man.

The marriage of convenience turns out to be anything but when Wai’s parents insist on coming to visit America for the wedding. One thing leads to another in a comical way until finally the deception begins to break down everyone involved. While the truth of the matter is not easy to accept or divulge, it turns out to be for the best.

The obvious themes of being gay and coming out are apparent here, and they’re explored thoughtfully. They are also paired with the cultural ramifications. While it is Taiwanese customs that are challenged by Wai’s homosexuality, it’s easy to switch out any culture, even an American one, and the story’s applicability stands.

Wai’s scene coming out  to his mother is genuine, even considering the early 90’s setting. The difficulties he describes gay people have finding relationships when even straight people have a hard time are headed breaking, and his explanation that he was “born this way” rings true even decades before Lady Gaga made it a tagline. When Wai’s father comes out in his own way, telling Simon that he knows about them and that he just wants to make sure his son is taken care of, I cried. It was beautiful and simple.

And that is probably the film’s greatest strength, aside from its clever writing: the endearing characters. Every single one gets into your soul in some way. In fact, none of them are antagonists in a major way as much as they are all struggling against the situation. In that sense, you get a chance to understand each one, and that’s where they get to you, and you can feel what they are all going through.

While Ang Lee is more well known for “Brokeback Mountain” and its challenge to American culture in particular made it more controversial and famous, I feel like I prefer the tone of “The Wedding Banquet”.  While the inherent warning of the former suggests that America’s steadfast adherence to traditional masculinity and heterosexuality can indeed be back-breaking and life-shattering, the latter shows the benefits benefits of cultural progress, even if the price is accepting an emerging culture that has very little precedent.

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Even more outstanding is that all is this was done in a time when marriage equality was unthinkable, even though gay marriage itself is not addressed. It’s just a shame that the themes explored in this film may not have appealed to a 90’s crowd that was still reeling from the AIDS crisis.

When I was explaining to my own partner last week about this film and how it still resonated with me, I was surprised that he knew what I was talking about (he doesn’t watch as many movies as I do) and produced a copy of it for us to watch. Finally watching it in its entirety bright back a flood of old feelings that I could more easily handle now that I can deal with that aspect if my life.

I am glad to say that my own life has turned out similarity to this film. While I had my own phase of being closeted, hiding from my parents who I really am, the truth has finally come out for us all. Like Wai, I have my own partner and my parents know him and see that I’m happy. It could have turned it much worse, and for many others the characters of “Brokeback Mountain” are an unfortunate reality. Perhaps “The Wedding Banquet” may be more of what we will see in the world.

While it may have been a naive fantasy back in the 90’s, the film is now truer to life. That is as much a testament to how our society has developed as it is to Ang Lee’s ability to capture this particular slice of life, what it’s like to be gay, and to find acceptance.

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How I Got to Elite: Dangerous

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Steam informed me recently that a game on my wish list was on sale. I don’t add items to that list often, but there are a few I forget are there. I checked it out and found that it was Elite: Dangerous.

I didn’t know much about it off the top of my head, but investigating the store page reminded me of the appeal. Open world. Milky Way galaxy recreation. Massive scale. MMO. Flight simulator.

So I bought it…

But first, let’s start in the mid-90s. For the record I was unaware until recently that Elite: Dangerous had previous installments during this time period. Had I known this the story would be different.

Anyway, I happened to pick up Lucasarts’ space combat simulator X-Wing when I was a kid. The box art and screenshots entranced me. I too would get to experience the ultimate freedom of space travel and get to blast Tie fighters into sparking fragments along the way.

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After several disks worth of installation (this was the original DOS version), I was ready to play and within minutes I was in the cockpit of the X-Wing, adjusting shield levels, engine speeds, and aiming at various vessels. This was what I was waiting for. True freedom.

This sense was quickly dashed, if only momentarily, when I noticed that those stars and galaxies and planets far off in the background were merely that, background. There would be no interstellar travel for me. Just intense space combat, and the promise of thrills like the films.

This series was quite popular as it turns out, spanning into the next decade with its sequel Tie Fighter offering the best experience in my opinion.

Still, there was that desire to fly among the stars that gnawed at me.

Let’s flashforward several years to the late 2000s. This is when I first tried EVE Online. This, I thought, was it. This was what I had always wanted. An entire galaxy to explore replete with space stations and starships, enemies and allies, and everything in between. Yes, it truly offers all these things.

Here I had my chance to be a renowned star fighter, but I could also be a pilot, a space miner (and perhaps have a daughter who would wrote a song about such things), an industrialist, or even a scheming CEO of a corporation filled with other real people to manipulate and command.

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The options were endless, but so was the path to progress it seemed. Now don’t get me wrong, EVE Online is great at what it offers, but it’s also demanding. And slow. And cutthroat. Eventually everything becomes a point and click affair, even space travel, which is more about navigating menus rather than space itself.

It’s not hard to admit that I enjoyed the game, generally but it is hard to admit that perhaps it’s a little more daunting than I would like for something that I want to truly enjoy.

At the end of the day, EVE Online offered quite a bit, more than I imagined in fact, but it still missed that certain something.

There were other games that came close, like Star Trek Online, with its arcade-ish space combat and the ability to lead away teams on planets. If you’ve wanted to be a Starfleet captain, or even a Romulan or Klingon, this is your chance. It’s a lighter version of EVE Online, to be sure, but its content is still entertaining and the fantastic setting is a bonus.

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After years of playing games, it’s safe to say that some of my earliest wishes have been buried under layers of reality and disappointment, but fortunately they have also been augmented by gaming experiences that have truly been enjoyable in unexpected ways.

So there I was the other day, loading up Elite: Dangerous. I tried the training missions, thinking that this really is a very similar game to EVE. Except that I was sitting in a cockpit. And that I could fly to any available star. And fight. And dock with space stations.

Then it hit me.

No, not that asteroid I collided with because I was still calibrating my controls.

No, it was something else: the realization that this is the game I had been wanting to play for almost twenty years!

Even better is the fact that Elite: Dangerous’ developers have already declared (not speculated as in the case of EVE) the kind of content they will roll out, like planetary landings and such. This is more than thrilling, and I feel like I’ve finally come full circle with those expectations born from the back of the X-Wing box all those years ago.  

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So, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prep my ship for travel to see either the Sol system in way I’ve never been able to or what lies beyond the other side of the galaxy’s core.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Retrospective

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So there’s a new Batman film on the horizon, if you haven’t heard. It’s the new Zack Snyder flick that follows up his mediocre Superman reboot, and pits two acclaimed heroes against each other. On the heels of the previous trilogy of Batman films by Christopher Nolan, this seems gimmicky and crude. In Nolan’s films we got to see Bruce Wayne explore what it takes to become Batman. This delving into pathos was more than we had seen compared to the films that had come before, such as the mid-nineties tripe of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Even Tim Burton’s films gave cursory attention to Batman’s past, though the Gothic nature of those films made them timeless in their own rights. But what of that *other* Batman feature film? The one that bombed at the box office, but still garners acclaim to this very day?

Released in 1993, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was supposed to be the vehicle that brought the well-regarded kids TV show wider notice. At only 76 minutes, it barely qualified as a feature film. It’s animation was spruced up a bit for the theaters, and it got to show a little bit of blood here and there. The question, however, is: is this enough to warrant giving Batman: Mask of the Phantasm such glowing acclaim?
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The short answer is a resounding YES.

Now for the long answer.

The film is based on the wildly successful Batman: The Animated Series, which has since been renamed more times than I can count. At the time, the show was riding on the coattails of Burton’s films, but it’s safe to say that the series reinvented itself apart from those films admirably. While taking certain cues from them here and there, such as the darker tone and a disfigured looking Penguin, the series displayed a Gotham City we haven’t seen since, an Art Deco playground for good and evil. Even thought the series launched in 1992, a film was arranged originally for direct-to-video, but was then pushed into theaters where it didn’t fare all that well.

Still it was a critical darling, and ironically it rivals even Christopher Nolan’s films in depth and complexity despite only taking up a fraction of the screen time.

Plot 

Plot is important to a film. Unlike television which can take seasons and years to tell a story, you only have minutes to do so in film before people lose interest. Surprisingly, even though the film lasts barely over an hour, it fluidly manages flashbacks and different plots without seeming rushed or incoherent. The bulk of the film is a classic murder mystery, which echoes the film noir influences the series adopted so adeptly.

Batman is framed for murder while a mysterious new vigilante in on the loose. Though this figure is also targeting known criminals, Batman must navigate law enforcement who assumes he is the culprit, the criminals themselves, the mysterious new figure, and finally and old adversary.  While all this is going on Bruce Wayne is reminded of his past when an old flame comes to town. Andrea Beaumont is the woman you’ve never ever heard of before who single-handedly nearly aborted the Batman before he ever donned the mask. Sharing similar tragic pasts, they bonded and even mended each other with a romance that started to change Bruce’s pessimistic views into more rosy-tinted ones.
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Then there are the criminals themselves, who have their ties to a certain district attorney, one who has eyes for Andrea and the end of Batman. Eventually, his roots are traced to the Joker himself, probably Batman’s greatest foe, other than the memories of romance that appear in this film.

Tying all of this together, we find that Andrea is the Phantasm, that she has been seeking revenge with plans to face off against the Joker herself. As it turns out, she and Bruce have much more in common than they realize, donning masks to fight crime, but Andrea has unfortunately become a twisted reflection of Batman, seeking petty revenge whereas Batman seeks to exercise justice.
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Other films have crumbled under much less, but Mask of the Phantasm bears it all easily. The themes of romance, morality, and even nostalgia thread the stories together. At some point in the film, almost every character laments his current state, pining for something more, and looking to the past for comfort. As he should, Batman is the paragon in these matters, but the cost is heavy, as it is poignantly displayed between Alfred and Bruce in the end.

Casting

The cast is the other half of what sells an animated feature. If the voice acting is sub par, no amount of animated wizardry  can make up the deficit. Voice Director Andrea Romano struck gold with his cast. Kevin Conroy is the voice of Batman like no screen actor could ever be. Unlike Christian Bale’s raspy drivel, Conroy can serve pleasantness with Bruce Wayne, and immediately dish out ferocious intensity as Batman. Future Desperate Housewife Dana Delaney also shines in her role as Bruce’s former lover. Then, of course, there is Mark Hamill as the Joker. I spent years of my childhood watching Star Wars and Batman, never once thinking that pious Luke Skywalker and devious Joker were characters from the same actor.
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These actors among the rest sell the film better than A-listers like Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and others who floundered in showing even less depth as real people than the two-dimensional did figures in this film.

The strength of this film is that, despite its intentions for a young audience, it never sacrifices its integrity to appeal to children. Just like the cartoon series, Mask of the Phantasm relies on storytelling, quality voice acting, and consistent art direction to provide an experience that draws you in. While most adults, understandably, associate animation like cartoons and comics with children, Mask of the Phantasm is like a graphic novel in motion.

Even the soundtrack, by the late Shirley Walker, stands toe to toe with Danny Elfman’s work. It’s a soundtrack that rivals all the films, and is superior to most, even the newest. You also get a sweet little R&B ditty by Tia Carrere during the end credits that was common in the 90’s, and it actually is a better song that what most Pop Princesses are putting out nowadays.

While I did watch other shows of the time like Tiny Toons and The Animaniacs, the Batman series was a breath of mature air that truly stimulated my mind as well as my eyes. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm took that all one step further and provided a cinematic experience that is nearly incomparable with the rest of the Batman franchise. Even as a child I felt sadness at the forlorn Andrea as she stared into the sea alone. I felt relief that Batman did the right thing without succumbing to the darkness he fought almost nightly. I felt disgusted with the corruption among so many in Gotham that made the city so dangerous. And ultimately, I understood the tragedy which prevented both Bruce and Andrea from following their young hearts.
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If a film can instill such complex emotions in a child who knows not even to search for these things, then what excuses do the other films have for providing less? Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is truly one of the best Batman films, and it doesn’t even need to rest on other installments in a trilogy to justify its existence.

Katya Hammered and Sickled My Heart to Pieces

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Since first viewing Rupaul’s Drag Race, I have become voraciously engaged with the show. It’s a sad truth that a reality television show has done this to me, but I have no qualms about this. Unlike other shows of this nature, Drag Race doesn’t exploit its subjects, and in fact it does a lot to elevate drag queens, who have long been the mascots and sometimes scapegoats of the gay community, to a more accepted status.

Every season brings an assortment of entertainers with various quirks, looks, and wit. While some are not easy to like, most grow on me one way or another, kind of like cancer. This season I am replete with Katya tumors and, oh my god, it’s stage four and it’s so, so, so sickening.

While her time on the show has, tragically, ended there is plenty in the future to look forward to from my favorite bisexual Russian hooker. While I longed to see Katya take the crown, or at least make the top three, a queen like her doesn’t need to win this show to make it out in the real world. Several queens from past seasons have become wildly popular without winning, and some winning queens have faded to relative obscurity (erm… Hello, Tyra?).

My main reason for wanting Katya to have made it farther is that she was my favorite part of every episode. Her personality, humor, and gloriously strange presentation gave me life the house down. Now that she has sashayed away, maybe I can start to recover, but I’d really rather not.

Cheers to Katya and her future. I’ll try to get by for the rest of the season without her. I really don’t care who wins anymore. At least I don’t have to watch her make the top three and *not* get crowned.

Here are some moments, of an infinite many, that trace the route my heart followed when it fell head over heels in love with this special queen. 

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When she walked into the workroom the first time, I was singing “Love at First Sight” like Kylie Minogue.

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This slow split was just everything. I. Was. Gagging.

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Katya was so full of quips, quibbles, and quotes that she put Bianca Del Rio’s rolodex of hate to shame.

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When she broke down and confided with Miss Fame about her addiction struggles, I broke down too.

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Now serving: rebellious illegitimate daughter of Ayn Rand realness.

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Really though… He’s an impishly cute little man.

New City

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My boyfriend booted up Sim City the other day and started building a new city from scratch. As he did so, he saw that I was watching and sheepishly said, “I never come up with names for my cities. I always leave them named ‘New City’.  I’m not that creative.”

He frowned at his perceived awkwardness and started laying roads and power plants and zones and pipes.

So I said, “There was an ancient culture called the Phoenicians. They lived in city states on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea near modern Syria and Lebanon. They were renowned mariners and even invented the alphabet that is the basis for the one we now use.

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“They had a rivalry with the ancient Greeks and established colonies all around the Mediterranean coast. Their most prosperous one was called Carthage. When the Phoenician cities were conquered and subjugated into other empires, Carthage was left on its own.

“Carthage eventually became a great power and, similar to the Phoenician rivalry with the Greeks, the Carthaginians had a rivalry with the Romans. After a series of fierce wars, and despite its maritime prowess and economic superiority, Carthage was eventually subdued by the Romans.

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“Despite being conquered, the city of Carthage has a rich legacy. Many modern cities, like Cadiz and Cartagena in Spain, can trace their roots to Carthage.

“By the way, the name Carthage comes from the Phoenician name Qart-hadast.

“That translates to New City.”

By this time, his town had begun to develop nicely. He smiled and said, “I like that story.”

Ninety 90’s Songs: Canadian K.D.’s Constant Craving

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Oh, the nineties. After the fun, excessive decade of the 80’s which featured innovation stacked on top the also over the top decade of the seventies, things became more subdued. Men sang about their grungy emotions, stopped wearing make up, and women starting to take center stage as moody gravitas-bearing muses. Even some of them stopped wearing make up, too. It wasn’t all Cyndi Lauper and her party anthems anymore. No, this was the decade of serious women. And more black and white videos.

#52 “Constant Craving” by K.D. Lang. Released in 1992, and then again in 1993, this song became a major hit. Unexpectedly, K.D. won Best Female Pop Vocal and Best Female Video awards (Female Video? Videos have a gender? Don’t they mean Video by a Female?).

Whether you identify with it’s lyrics due to feelings you have towards someone you like, or perhaps a vice you can’t shake, and those may very well be the same thing, it’s not difficult to imagine why this song was so popular. We tend to crave the things that are bad for us, don’t we? Knowing we shouldn’t indulge only makes those cravings worse. And more constant.

The video features a stage production of “Waiting for Godot.” The themes (pick one, many have studied it and there are several) were meant to complement the themes of the song. Is K.D. craving the return of a currently absent yet soon to return Godot-esque figure? Maybe she is just craving a chance to play a role in a production that famously features only men. Regardless, having her sing backstage while we see the play performed mirrors how our deep longings continuously rack our minds behind the scenes, while we put on a mask to the world that we are just fine.

While I usually rag on the choice of so many 90’s videos to go black and white, the choice here provides a bleak and stark effect that magnifies the light and dark shades of emotion depicted in the song and video. The song deserved its acclaim, which makes it sad that we still don’t hear this song as often anymore, despite being featured on music-recycling powerhouse Glee.