Next week, moviegoers looking forward to the romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” will finally get their summer movie event of the season.
But 25 years ago this week, another film premiered in theaters that also brought together issues of immigration, family and traditions around a big wedding celebration. Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” was almost unprecedented in its portrayal of a cross-cultural Asian American family and its handling of gender roles and sexuality.
“The Wedding Banquet” follows a hotshot businessman, Wai-Tung (Winston Chao), as he struggles to keep his private life a secret from his traditionally minded parents back home in Taiwan. He’s gay and lives with his handsome American boyfriend, Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), in a posh Manhattan brownstone. He has no intentions of starting a family anytime soon.
After years of needling their son for a grandchild, Wai-Tung’s parents sign him up for a matchmaking service. He tries to dodge that too, giving them an absurd list of demands for his future partner, but the service finds a candidate for him. Finally, at the suggestion of his boyfriend, Wai-Tung, a landlord, asks one of his building tenants, a free-spirited artist named Wei Wei (May Chin) to play his bride in exchange for rent and to avoid immigration issues. It seems like the solution to both Wai-Tung and Wei Wei’s problems, except she has feelings for him, and he, of course, has feelings for Simon.
It’s the basic ingredients for a ’90s romantic comedy, but what makes “The Wedding Banquet” so memorable all these years later is how the movie draws you into these young people’s well-meaning but deeply flawed efforts to fool their elders. Wai-Tung’s family arrives from Taiwan for the new couple’s nuptials, only to find that the ceremony won’t be done traditionally. There won’t even be a big banquet for friends and family, which Wai-Tung’s mother insists upon. Eventually, after a tearful bout or two, an unlikely solution presents itself that makes the extravagant catering affair a possibility. It brings many more comical headaches – and real relationship drama – to the three young co-conspirators.
So much of the immigrant experience in America is negotiating which traditions to keep alive and which to leave behind in the homeland. Wai-Tung is sandwiched between the forces of competing traditions, and he doesn’t always handle it well. He codeswitches so forcefully, it seems like he’s two different characters, playing the part of a loving partner with Simon to the part of the dutiful son for his parents. This makes their rejection of his relationship with Simon all the more painful.
The characters in both “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Wedding Banquet” view parental approval of potential spouses as important steps in a relationship. Much of each movie’s tension depends on the parents’ reaction and how the young men and women react or counter any doubts about their relationship. It’s a nerve-wracking test, one with lots of room for failure.
Like Constance Wu’s character in “Crazy Rich Asians,” Wei Wei is not seen as ideal daughter-in-law material for her boyfriend’s upper-class family. She’s an artist who can’t cook basic dishes without nearly poisoning everyone at the dinner table, and it’s up to Simon to save dinner and their ruse. Fortunately for the characters in “The Wedding Banquet,” Wai-Tung’s family is much more forgiving in this regard than those in “Crazy Rich Asians.”
There may have been a real dearth of Asian American stories in Hollywood history, but a handful like “The Wedding Banquet” made it through to share a story not often heard yet familiar to many. One of love, traditions and yes, how family can frustrate us all. Ahead of “Crazy Rich Asians,” be sure to check out these other films about the Asian American experience:
Released just one month after “The Wedding Banquet,” the adaptation of Amy Tan’s book centers on four pairs of mothers and their daughters. It’s one of the best movies about immigration and the differences between first- and second-generation immigrants. The event that brings all women together is not a joyous occasion, but one that allows for reflection on their pasts. In the daughters’ case, most of them recall old fights for independence from their mothers’ expectations or traditional way of doing things. Meanwhile, their moms think of their hard won journeys to the United States. It’s an emotional story of reconciliation between generations, and it was a story that almost never made it to the big screen.
For a dramatic turn on the Asian American experience, Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” rejects the model minority label with a showy crime thriller starring John Cho and Sung Kang. A group of overachieving Asian American boys starts a test-cheating ring that earns the kids more money than they know what to do with. It quickly escalates into a problem that brings its own set of deadly consequences.
Remember #StarringJohnCho? Fans finally got their wish when Cho starred in Kogonada’s deliberately paced drama, “Columbus.” In a thoughtful performance, Cho plays the role of a Korean American man coming to terms with losing his estranged father and the course his life has taken. He finds a kindred wandering spirit (Haley Lu Richardson) to explore the mid-century architectural marvels of Columbus, Ind., and talk through the many things on their minds.
Sean Baker follows the story of a Chinese food deliveryman (Charles Jang) in New York City desperate to pay back his smugglers before their deadline. It’s a frantic race to the story’s finish, but one that shows the modern day experience of trying to get by as an undocumented immigrant.