Ang Lee

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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