Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” (1993) plays very much like a typical romantic-comedy/family drama, but differs from the Hollywood mold in a couple of aspects. First of all, the focus on a non-traditional family with both cross-cultural and homosexual facets situates it outside of the conventional norms. The independent production with a low-key tone and non-celebrity casting also gives it less of the commercialized sheen and mass-marketed anonymity of standardized genre films. The independent nature, relative realism and cultural specificity of the film also lend it an aspect of sincerity and originality generally maintained throughout the film.
The premise initially sounds like typical comedy fodder: Gao Wai Tung is a gay Taiwanese immigrant who has kept his persuasion a secret from his traditionalist parents and eventually agrees to a marriage of convenience with an attractive female artist trying to get a green card. A fairly predictable set of awkward situations and gentle disasters follows leading into an upbeat conclusion. The story would no doubt fall apart in the hands of a lesser director, but Lee shows a genuine compassion for his characters and a wise level of restraint that keeps the outrageousness from feeling impossible.
However, “The Wedding Banquet” remains so conventional in form and delivery that its progressive content never challenges our expectations. The palatable compromises struck during the debates between traditional culture and modern sensibilities intelligently refuse to villainize any of the characters, yet often feels overly contrived to appeal to an international mainstream. I occasionally felt that by striving for a completely smooth and inoffensive narrative arc they also excised some of the societal and emotional complexities at work.
Those more theoretical complaints aside, “The Wedding Banquet” is a highly entertaining and frequently satisfying film. The performances tend to work and particular attention has been paid to the comic timing of everyday conversations, reactions and minor troubles. The acting tends to occasionally slip during moments of high drama, which are clearly not Lee’s specialty. The camerawork is seamless in its privileging of the narrative, but not so dry as to show directorial laxity.
You can see many of the elements that would appear in later Ang Lee efforts like “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994) and “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) in “The Wedding Banquet” and it is clear that the director has a talent for making relatively sincere lightweight efforts designed for mass appeal.
Walrus Rating: 7
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Any conversation about Ang Lee would be remiss if it did not inlcude Hulk.
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