Wedding Banquet, The (1993): Ang Lee’s Bright, Oscar-Nominated Gay Comedy

The sharply observed The Wedding Banquet, Lee’s best film to date, is a madcap comedy about a marriage of convenience between a gay Taiwanese-American and a Chinese woman in need of American citizenship.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The Wedding Banquet
The Wedding Banquet 1993 poster.png

Theatrical release poster

The movie examines the primacy of the individual within a culture that worships authority and rewards conformity, a society in which tradition carries the weight of generations. Tapping the resources of his homeland and adopted country, Lee’s film conveys with humor his ambivalence about that heritage. While the protagonist finds his freedom and happiness in the U.S., tradition is imposed on him by his parents in the guise of a Wedding Banquet–the “Red Monster,” which in Lee’s words is “an all-red, noisy event, giving people splitting headache.”

Wei Tung (Winston Chao), a successful businessman, has hidden his homosexuality from his Taiwanese parents who’re desperate to have grandchildren. His yuppie lover Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) suggests a marriage of convenience to Wai Wai (May Chin), a struggling artist who’ll do anything to get a green card. When Wei’s parents unexpectedly arrive from Taiwan, they lament the impersonal civil-service ceremony. Finally, he gives in to their demands for a more lavish and traditional wedding.

With pointed humor, Lee describes traditional weddings as being all about food and “torture” of the bride and groom. “As a ceremony, it’s very flamboyant and emotion plays very high. It’s more for the parents than for your own self. It’s very absurd, very insincere, and very expensive.” The movie is personal: Lee’s parents were upset when he opted for a real-life version of the marriage-bureau scene–“my mother burst out crying.” Years later, he conceded to a “wedding banquet” to celebrate his marriage to filmmaking.

The film’s titular sequence was cast with friends and people recruited through ads in a Chinese-language newspaper. Many came because they wanted to see May Chin, a famous pop star in Taiwan. Lee didn’t have to direct the bit players because they already knew the conventions. They got free lunch, but were told not to eat anything on the tables; the food contained a poisonous preservative to make it shine.

The idea for Wedding Banquet originated from an anecdote recounted by Neil Peng, Lee’s writing partner. A mutual gay friend from a Taiwanese military training camp had been deceiving his family while living with a Caucasian boyfriend in Washington D.C. They had been lovers for 8 years, but the parents didn’t know about it. Fascinated by the “white lies,” Lee realized the situation was ripe for a satire of banquets. The actual case inspired Lee to conceive of an arranged marriage and then wonder, “What if something goes on under the blankets” The sex scene that takes place on the honeymoon between the drunk bride and groom has been criticized as unrealistic, given the man’s homosexuality. But Lee defends it: “They’re drunk, they’re confused by the ceremony. Cross-sex sexuality is not that impossible.” For Lee, “the real point is that he stays gay. It should be read as a mishap.”

When Wai Wai seduces her inebriated husband, she announces, “I’m liberating you.” Her statement has been misinterpreted, as if applying to sexuality, but for Lee, it was a political joke: “She’s from China, and the scene’s very red, and it’s like he’s going back to the motherland. That’s one of the Chinese slogans aimed at Taiwan: ‘Someday, we’ll liberate you.'”

Lee satirizes a political situation–the two countries are farcically reunited through a fake marriage. A lot of people go to China and invest, and a lot of illegal immigrants in Taiwan are from China. The current movement toward Taiwanese independence has affected Lee’s own identity. “I’m not a native Taiwanese because my parents are from China. If they go independent, who am I Am I Chinese or Taiwanese And China after the Communist revolution is not the China I had in mind from what I was taught by my parents. It’s something else; it’s a grand illusion. And then I stay here as a minority in America for 15 years.” Like Wayne Wang in the 1980s, it’s “all mixed up” for Lee in the 1990s.

Sympathetic towards the parental point of view, Lee constructed the mother (Ah-Leh Gua) as the strongest character, for whom “The whole establishment of her existence is the family. She’s the one who really manipulates; the father’s just playing his part to maintain his self-image to the mother. It’s a very typical Chinese family. The mother seems submissive, but she gets what she wants the way she wants it.”

The Wedding Banquet represented a major achievement for a country where homosexuality has rarely been publicly acknowledged (it was the first Chinese film to show two men kissing). While pleased by the positive response, Lee still hoped to provoke the audience: “I love stirring things up rather than sticking to the Chinese ideal, which is to appeal for calm.” Lee probes humorously Chinese society’s duplicitous attitudes: “Sex is erotic and is how families come into being, but Chinese families will never talk about it.” Lee aimed at an authentic reflection of a loving, healthy gay relationship, while equally drawing on his relationship with his parents. He understood on a very personal level “the need for Wai Tung to be free of this political burden of being the first-born.”

Produced on a skeletal budget of $750,000, and financed by Taiwan’s Central Motion Picture Corp, Wedding Banquet grossed over $4 million domestically, which qualifies it as the highest-grossing Taiwanese film in history. Based on cost-to-earnings ratio (with global grosses of $30 million), Wedding Banquet was the most profitable film of 1993, beating even Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

Oscar Context:

The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but did not win.

It was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award.

It won the Golden Space Needle of the Seattle International Film Festival and the Golden Bear at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival.