A slickly mounted Gotham comedy about two gays who try to hoodwink the Chinese partner’s parents with a phony marriage, “The Wedding Banquet” slides down easily even if it doesn’t leave much aftertaste. Canny mix of feel-good elements and ethnic color could pay off in brisk foreign sales for co-winner of the Berlin fest Golden Bear.
Commercially, the Taiwan-funded pic has the potential to go much wider than previous Amerasian items, even though it’s a shallower work than helmer Ang Lee’s first feature, “Pushing Hands,” admired at Berlin last year.
Easily digestible package is clearly designed with crossover appeal. Rather than being movie’s sine qua non, the gay-based story line is more a hook for a broader portrait of traditional Chinese attitudes to sex and posterity. On that level it works, mainly thanks to a grounding perf by Sihung Lung (old master in “Hands”) as the wise paterfamilias.
Central couple are Wai-tung (Winston Chao), a Taiwanese with a comfy lifestyle in Manhattan from real estate investments, and his white U.S. lover Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein). To fend off his mother’s long-distance nagging to get married, Wai-tung agrees to a green-card deal with one of his Soho tenants, the ambitious but broke Wei-wei (May Chin), an illegal immigrant from Shanghai.
Proverbial stuff hits the fan when Wai-tung’s parents suddenly fly over from Taiwan to attend the wedding. Not only do they stay in the lovers’ apartment, but a planned quickie at City Hall becomes a full-blown wedding banquet to satisfy mom and dad.
Gradually, all characters start to change position as they get to know each other. A further complication is when a drunken Wai-tung momentarily slips off his sexual wagon and makes Wei-wei pregnant on their wedding night.
Most of this is smoothly done and scripted with plenty of incident, especially in the set piece of the enormous wedding banquet and some funny sitcomy sequences of fooling the parents inside their son’s apartment. In pacing and handling of ensemble, Lee is more assured here than in “Hands.”
But the characters are not given enough depth for the climax to pay emotional dividends. Though succinctly sketched at the start, the gay relationship slips out of focus as Chinese issues and the escalating comedy of errors take over. Lichtenstein’s role is an early casualty. With Chao’s role also developing no new wrinkles, the final payoff is milder than expected. It’s also a tad glib, though in tune with the generally light tone.
As the taciturn father, Lung fleshes out a largely symbolic part into the soul of the movie, encapsulated in the final scenes. Chin, a popular singer/TV thesp in her native Taiwan, is far too sexy for someone having difficulty finding a husband but adds color and shape to an initially unsympathetic role.
Newcomer Chao, former model and flight attendant, is OK as pig-in-the-middle Wai-tung without bringing much extra to the table. Lichtenstein melds easily with the Chinese cast, and vet Taiwan actress Ah-leh Gua (better known by the name Kuei Ya-lei) has her moments as the mother.
Tech credits are pro on all fronts. Lee himself cameos briefly at the wedding banquet with the line, “You’re witnessing the results of 5,000 years of sexual repression.”