Starring: Winston Chao, Mitchell Lichtenstein, May Chin, Ya-Lei Kuei, Sihung Lung
Rated R for Language
You are cordially invited to a wedding where everyone wants to kiss the bride...except the groomI've been known to take notice of a good movie tagline, such as in "Hollow Man" (Think you're alone? Think again), "Seven" (Let he who is without sin try to survive) or "A Fish Called Wanda" (A tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood). Not only is the tagline for "The Wedding Banquet" witty and enticing, it sets the tone for the movie. This is a cheery dramedy that also deals with some rather weighty material.
Wai-Tung (Chao) is a young gay man living in New York City working as a landlord. His partner is Simon (Lichtenstein), a physical therapist. His parents (Kuei and Lung) think he's a bachelor, and since his ailing father's wish is to hold his grandson, they're on his case to get married and have a kid. It just so happens that Wai-Tung has a tenant named Wei-Wei (Chin) who is pretty, single, and in danger of being deported. If they marry, then Wei-Wei gets a green card and Wai-Tung can get his parents off his back. It looks like their problems are over until his parents call and announce that they're coming to help with the wedding preparations. Uh oh.
There are two ways this could have gone. One is a screwball farce like "The Birdcage." It certainly has the potential to be a screwball comedy of errors and other assorted misunderstandings. Or it could be a tragedy from Ingmar Bergman. While initially appealing, none of them realize the emotional cost of such a deception, least of all to Wai-Tung's loving parents. Ang Lee opts for something in the middle. It's humorous, but won't satisfy those in search of belly laughs. It deals with some heavy material, but it's not a total downer. It hits the sweet spot. I say this because I don't want to present it as some sort of "bait-and-switch" like "The Break-Up" with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, which promised to be a wicked comedy but ended up being a half-baked depresss-o-thon. Nor is it an especially serious movie.
Ang Lee has always been able to get strong performances out of his cast (both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were lightweight actors before they starred for Lee in "Brokeback Mountain"), and this is a talent that he was able to display as early as his second film. Winston Chao was not an actor but an airline steward before he was cast. Lee's instincts and Chao's hard work (he worked 3-4 hours daily with Lee to learn how to act) paid off; Chao doesn't have a weak moment as a mild-mannered gay man with no backbone. He and his co-star, Mitchell Lichtenstein (who went on to direct the wretched "Teeth." I guess he learned something about working with actors working with Lee since the only thing worth remembering about that movie was the sparkling performance by Jess Weixler) have good chemistry and create a believable relationship that, for once, is free of any stereotypes (and this was made in 1993...how far we've come). As Wei-Wei, May Chin shines. Despite the premise, she's not a prop to be manipulated by Wai-Tung and Simon. She has her own thoughts and feelings, and perhaps surprisingly, feels the guiltiest of all.
Chinese actors Sihung Lung and Ya-Lei Kuei are also effective. It would have been too easy for Lee to turn them into dim-witted hicks of sorts. But Lee presents them with care and sensitivity. They're smart enough to realize that their son and daughter-in-law's behavior is a little odd, but they're too smart to say anything about it. Then when the third act comes about, they act in ways that we don't expect.
"The Wedding Banquet" isn't a perfect movie. It's a little too long and the humor is a little too understated (some scenes that had the potential to be uproarious are played too low-key). But it is definitely entertaining and immensely charming