When a white lie becomes hurtful — Ang Lee’s ‘The Wedding Banquet’

「偉同,你老大不少,怎麼還沒有成家的打算?」— 高媽

“Wei-Tong, you are not young. How could you have no plan for forming your own family?” — Mama Gao

When Life of Pi became an Oscar hit in 2012, Ang Lee gained the spotlight again after his famed Brokeback Mountain in 2005. Yet the Western audience has known little about Ang Lee’s other earlier works. Together with Pushing Hands and Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet is part of Lee’s underappreciated ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy.

Acclaimed with a Golden Bear in 1993, The Wedding Banquet describes Wei-Tong (Winston Chao), a homosexual, Taiwanese immigrant who marries with Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), living happily in an apartment in Manhattan. Yet, across the sea, Mama Gao (Ya-lei Kuei) worries about her son’s future life, getting married with an ideal wife. After Mr. Gao’s (Si-hung Lung) near death, the couple decides to travel to New York to visit their son. To live up to his parents’ expectations, Wei-Tong asks Wei-Wei (May Chin), a broke tenant, for a sham marriage. Desperate for a green card and romance, Wei-Wei accepts the “proposal”, causing further clashes to the Gaos.

As a Taiwanese-American director, Ang Lee endeavours to depict unspoken taboos in Chinese traditional culture, therefore touching themes such as homosexuality, filial piety and family pride. In traditional Chinese family values, gender roles are stereotyped. Marriage is only formed between a man and a woman and family is only complete with the birth of a child. Shouldering with such expectations and values, Wei Tong marries Wei-Wei, starting this “white” lie.

Because of the difference in expectations, cross-generational miscommunication is widened. This is reflected on the cassettes that Mama Gao sends to Wei-Tong to urge him to get married. In the beginning of the film, Wei-Tong is listening to the tape while working out in the gym. When the cassette stops, the screen turns pitch-black; the audience hears a throb, signifying the dropping of the dumbbell. Rather than communication, Wei-Tong regards it as a callback for his “duty” as a son to  establish his family. Having a cassette as a symbol, Ang Lee highlights the new burden exerted on the new generation by filial piety.

The depiction of Wei-Wei’s life in the film represents the hardship of many Chinese overseas immigrants at the time. Without a green card and a proper job, Wei-Wei has her rent to pay. Having escaped from China for a better life, these immigrants experienced not only discrimination, but also the sense of helplessness in a foreign country. For Wei-Wei, marriage is a solution for her troubled life, allowing her to have right of residency while pursuing her aspirations. While seeking for a way out, marriage ironically becomes the symbol of hope and freedom. Yet, it becomes a nightmare, entrapping the couple with more conflicts with the rest of the family members.

As the key setting for the plot, the wedding banquet is more than a place for celebration; it is a representation of a family’s reputation and honour. When the couple decides not to have a banquet after a brief ceremony in the notary, Mama Gao bursts into tears. These tears pinpoint that the banquet is a “show” for the family, allowing parents to thank relatives and friends in a respectable manner. Without a banquet, parents can’t take pride in their children, losing face in front of everyone.

Famous for having strong and convincing plots for movies, Ang Lee simply uses basic filming techniques in this production. Yet, what fascinates me is the dramatic irony employed in the movie. Since Wei-Wei could not cook, impressing Wei-Tong’s parents becomes a challenge. Instead, Simon, being a good cook, does the cooking for her. Wei-Wei’s clumsiness in the kitchen not only creates comic relief, but also reflects on Chinese expectations of the “ideal wife” as a lady who “is skilled to make good cuisine.”

Director Wei-Zhou Xu once claimed, “His camera follows the footsteps of men… He cares for the traditional humanistic qualities.” As at the end of the movie, Wei-Tong’s parents decide to go back to Taiwan. Indeed, Wei-Wei is pregnant and Wei-Tong’s homosexuality is revealed, leaving everything unresolved. Ang Lee uses the naturalistic approach in designing the plot, by not introducing any sort of “deus ex machina”. Surprisingly, the movie ends in a lightweight tone. Ang Lee does not intend to overload the audience with cultural and familial complexities. Yet, this raises an important question concerning all the clashes of taboos and traditions — How can these be resolved?

[Ernest Shiu]

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