Cultural Provocateur : In 'The Wedding Banquet,' Ang Lee Stirs Up Custom

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ang Lee hates wedding banquets. The 38-year-old Taiwanese-born filmmaker calls the Chinese cultural tradition an infantile excuse for his people to "throw off 5,000 years of sexual repression." Thus when the young emigre himself got married in 1983, he had a simple civil ceremony in downtown Manhattan, gladly escaping the bacchanal of ribald toasts and drunken high jinks.

"Everybody is so very sincere," said the New York-based filmmaker in English during a recent interview at a midtown Manhattan diner. "That's why I wanted to stage a fake one, to show just how absurd and ridiculous it all is."

And how better for Lee to subvert the ancient custom than to stage it with a bride, a groom--and the groom's gay lover--in "The Wedding Banquet," his film that opens in Los Angeles today.

In "The Wedding Banquet," Wai Tung (Winston Chao), a handsome gay Taiwanese real estate entrepreneur living in New York, decides to resolve his parents' incessant badgering to find a bride by marrying one of his tenants. Wei Wei (May Chin), an illegal immigrant, is agreeable. So is Wai Tung's longtime Caucasian lover Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) who hatches the scheme to take the pressure off his boyfriend and get him a tax break in the process. Things go awry, however, when Wai Tung's parents arrive in New York from Taiwan and the poseurs get carried away with the wedding banquet's fertility rites.

The international success of the comedy, which won top awards at the Berlin and Seattle film festivals this year, is in part a nod to the universality of its themes--from the politics of sexual identity to the timeless need of children to escape their parents. Other popular films have grappled with some of the same issues. But "The Wedding Banquet" examines the primacy of the individual within the context of a culture that expects and rewards conformity, where the pull of traditions carries the weight of 5,000 years of ancestor worship.

"The Wedding Banquet," has, surprisingly, been an enormous success in Taiwan. Produced on a skeletal budget of $750,000 and financed by Taiwan's Central Motion Picture Corp., the movie has brought in receipts in excess of $4 million there, making it the highest-grossing Taiwanese-made film in history. This in a country where homosexuality exists as a subculture but has rarely been publicly acknowledged.

"They accepted 'The Wedding Banquet' in Taiwan as a family comedy," Lee said. "They were drawn in by the emotional relationships."

The director said that while he was pleased at the response, he still hoped that he had provoked audiences. "I love the dramatic," Lee said. "I love stirring things up rather than sticking to the Chinese ideal, which is to appeal for calm."

The filmmaker's opportunity to do just that came seven years ago when a friend, Neil Peng, told him that he had learned that his closest buddy--someone with whom both he and Lee had served in the Taiwanese military--was gay and living with a Caucasian boyfriend in Washington. They had been lovers for eight years and the parents didn't know about the sexual orientation of their only son.

"I was fascinated by the white lies and the charade," said Lee, realizing that here was a situation ripe for satirizing the wedding banquets. In 1988, he began writing the screenplay with Peng. (James Schamus also is co-writer.)

Said the director, "The most difficult scene for me to shoot was the scene in which the bride seduces the groom. It seemed unnatural to me, somehow. I had become so used to Wai Tung wanting Simon, repressing that desire while his parents were there but then acting in a way that is expected of him on the night of the wedding banquet. It was confusing to me. I shot it three times and discarded it three times."

But while Lee was anxious that the film be an authentic reflection of a healthy and loving gay relationship, he said that he drew equally on his own life and his own relationship with parents in writing "The Wedding Banquet." "I understood the need for Wai Tung to be free of this political burden of being the first-born," Lee said.

The expectations of Lee's parents, both of whom are scholars, for their son, the eldest of six children, were heightened by events of the Communist Revolution in mainland China that had traumatically scarred the family. Both of his paternal grandparents, along with many relatives, were killed because they had been landlords at the time Mao Tse-tung took power. The rest of the family took refuge in Taiwan.

Lee was encouraged by his parents to pursue an education in the United States in the hope that he, too, would become a scholar. His father was dismayed when his son chose filmmaking instead--an ambition partly fed by Lee's passion for Western movies, especially those by Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini and neo-realist masterpieces, like Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thief." After getting an undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois, Lee went on to New York University's film school.

"Film study was considered disgraceful by my father," Lee said. "It wasn't until I won the Berlin Film Festival award last year that he finally thought that maybe it was OK."

Before that, however, Lee struggled for 15 years in the United States in what he called "development hell," supported by his Taiwan-born wife, Jane Lin, a microbiologist whom he had met in Illinois. His student films brought him recognition and awards but no big breaks.

For one thing, Hollywood didn't quite know what to do with Lee. Producers considered Lee's emotionally complex scripts, which he had written on speculation, to be of limited appeal. "I never experienced what I'd call racism in these meetings," said Lee. "They just weren't interested."

In 1990, however, Lee's scripts for "The Wedding Banquet" and "Pushing Hands" won a Taiwan state film competition. The Central Motion Picture Corp., partly backed with government funds, balked at financing "a gay movie." But it gave the green light to "Pushing Hands" about a former Tai-Chi master from China who comes to live with his only son in New York. That film explored the cross-cultural and generational conflicts that have been the spine of almost all of Lee's work.

That process of self-discovery is the theme of his next project, "Eat, Drink, Men and Women," a Chinese-language film to be shot entirely in Taipei about a Taiwanese cook and his three unmarried daughters who seek their own sense of liberation. "There is even more breaking away in it than in 'The Wedding Banquet,' " he said.

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