When East Meets West:
A Sweet and Sour Encounter in Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet

Elisabetta Marino, University of Rome "Tor Vergata"

The Wedding Banquet, a movie directed and co-written by the Taiwanese-born, US-educated Ang Lee, with Neil Peng and James Schamus, won the “best film prize” at the 1993 Berlin Festival. It tells the story of Wai Tung, a Taiwanese-American boy who is making a fortune by restructuring and then renting old premises. Wai Tung lives with his white partner, Simon, in New York, the American city which is geographically the remotest from Taiwan. Their life, seemingly unacceptable according to Taiwanese patriarchal culture that values procreation and the transmission of one’s family name above all else, is continually undermined by Wai Tung’s parents, who, unaware of their son's homosexuality and eager to have an heir, are trying to find Wai Tung a wife, including making him fill out all sorts of forms to send to the most prominent Taiwanese dating agencies. In order to make his parents happy and keep on living his life quietly, and at the same time, help one of his tenants (Wei Wei, a Chinese artist who needs a green card) Wai Tung decides to follow Simon’s advice and formally marry the young woman. What he does not expect, however, is that his mother and father will fly to New York to meet the bride and, in order to make up for the shabbiness of a rushed wedding in the city hall, will even organize a lavish, Chinese-style wedding banquet, which seems to be key to the unpredictable twists and turns of the story.

Ang Lee’s way of coping with issues associated with ethnicity, generation conflicts and gender — tightly interwoven in the movie — is very original indeed. While contemporary novels such as those of Amy Tan underscore the often-irresolvable dilemma of choosing between adherence to tradition and the American way of life, Lee focuses on two main points. The first is an interrogation of the stereotypical image of the “Orientals” in many Hollywood movies and the biased portrayals of the Asian parents, of young, ambivalent Asian Americans, and even oppressive and racist White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The second is the assertion of a value that is not exclusively Eastern, Western, hybrid, heterosexual, or homosexual, but more simply human: the idea of human continuity, suggested by the future birth of a child (in this case, Wai Tung and Wei Wei’s baby). This imminent event enables the characters to bridge their physical and mental distance and, eventually, successfully reconcile the opposites, like sweet and sour, with a result that is as delicious as the Chinese food of the banquet, as constructive as the development of the plot. Thus, Lee’s film opens new channels of communication between East and West.

Lee’s creative process and his final choice of two languages, Mandarin Chinese and English, for the movie are in themselves symptomatic of his wish to reach a peaceful coexistence between apparently irreconcilable cultures, without conferring the leading role on either of them. As James Schamus points out in his introduction to the published version of the screenplay, The Wedding Banquet was “first drafted in Chinese, then translated into English, re-written in English, translated back into Chinese, and eventually subtitled in Chinese and English and a dozen other languages” (xi). Approximately sixty percent of the movie is actually shot in Chinese but, strikingly enough, after striving to read the subtitles for the first ten or fifteen minutes, one finds oneself so completely absorbed in the flow of the story, in the tones of the several voices, in the gestures and the facial expressions of the actors, that one simply forgets to read and reaches an understanding beyond languages, beyond words, following a plot and, most of all, a set of characters who do not conform to the stereotypical portrayals an American audience would expect. The American audience, unfortunately, continues to be guided by stereotypes influenced by Charlie Chan and Suzie Wong movies. As critic Elaine Kim remarks, “Asian men have been coded as having no sexuality, while Asian women have nothing else… both exist to define the white man’s virility and the white race’s superiority” (69).

These stereotypes are completely reversed in the characterization of Wai Tung, Wei Wei and Simon. Wai Tung is a perfectly integrated, successful Asian-American businessman, who speaks impeccable English and is not at all concerned about the glass ceiling that supposedly prevents immigrants from pursuing the American dream of wealth and personal fulfillment. Far from being a thin, fragile, emasculated figure, he is first presented on stage when “he is on a Stairmaster machine” (119), and in two more scenes “he works out” (131) and “pumps iron like a madman” (193); however, it should be also pointed out that this happens every time he listens to one of the cassettes his mother sends him from afar, asking him to be less “choosy” (120), settle down with a wife, and start a family. Exercising is therefore also a way of lifting the “burden” of his parents’ expectations. In Simon’s opinion, Wai Tung is “such a disgusting yuppie,” with his mobile phone; his home phone, “which he hogs like a total pig”; and his “piles of unread magazines – World Trade, Advocate, GQ, Fortune” (139) lying next to his favourite couch. Wai Tung swallows big slices of pizza, talks excitedly about his speculations to the bored Simon, and is eventually persuaded to marry Wei Wei only because he will then be able to “take a big tax break” (138)! Wei Wei is an abstract art painter, determined to succeed in her profession although she has “no money, no job, no green card and no stupid American [who] will marry [her]” (137). She is not hyper-sexed — she normally wears rather loose clothes — and, unlike the stereotypical “Oriental” woman, she is completely incapable of cooking anything but her “Depression Special” (127). Apart from being the only words in English that she uses meaningfully in her first speech with Wai Tung, “Depression Special” is a disgusting “dish” made of “day old cooked rice” and a “melting bar of chocolate,” through which Ang Lee seems to introduce the theme of food in its connection with cultural values, by humorously hinting at the state of uneasiness of those Asian immigrants who could not really negotiate their identity between their centuries’ old tradition (the rice) and the American myth of the “melting pot” (the chocolate).

On the other side, Simon, besides speaking “broken Chinese” as an ironic counterpart to the immigrants’ “broken English,” is a perfect cook of Asian dishes. Interestingly, these are the only ones he keeps preparing in the whole film. He runs the house and he is therefore introduced as the feminine part of the gay couple, thus contradicting the stereotype of the “White American machismo” mentioned by Kim. Simon is tall, blond, blue-eyed, the typical American but, humorously enough, he is the only one in the movie against whom sexual prejudices are openly expressed through the despising glances of the neighbours, whom Ang Lee, in his stage directions, defines as “a prototypical American middle-aged John Birch-type couple standing [and] tinkering on their steps. An American flag hangs from their house” (123). After all, America is not a utopia of freedom and mutual respect, not even for white, US-born people, if they do not conform entirely to the mainstream culture.

Overcoming the stereotype of the Asian, old-fashioned parents is apparently a much more difficult task for Ang Lee. In a 1997 interview, the director stated, “because Chinese society is a patriarchal society, I have always thought the father figure has a bigger meaning than just the parent – it’s the symbol of how tradition works”[1]. Consequently, well before the audience is directly confronted with his little, stern figure, Wai Tung’s father, Mr. Gao, is presented by his wife’s voice, in the first tape she sends to her son, as a retired military man: “he was a general commanding tens of thousands of soldiers, and now,” as she sadly remarks, “he has only me […] to command at home” (119). According to the stage directions, when Wai Tung and Wei Wei collect the old couple at the airport, “they search the crowd for her – spot her – and look her over from head to toe” (143). The only remark they make, whispering to one another while concentrating on Wei Wei’s hips is, “she will have lots of babies” (144). When they all arrive at Wai Tung’s home, the walls have been carefully rid of pictures and gay pride posters and replaced by Mr. Gao’s calligraphy exercises. His parents start showering Wei Wei with presents for “the First Acquaintance to [their] daughter-in-law” (150): some cash in a red wrapping, a pearl necklace, a red coral pin, two golden bracelets and Mrs. Gao’s old “Chi Pao,” the traditional Chinese wedding gown that she had worn when she had got married, which is described as a “bond that passes from generation to generation” (152). In Wild Geese and Tea, an Asian American Wedding Planner, written by Shu Shu Costa, we read about the twelve gifts, six from each side, that the two families of a couple are supposed to exchange in order to respect the most conservative Chinese and Taiwanese pre-nuptial practices. No present will come from Wei Wei’s side as her parents do not even know she is about to marry but, strikingly enough, as a humorous prolepsis of what is going to happen further on in the film (the disclosure of Wai Tung’s homosexuality and of his real partner), Simon — introduced as the landlord — brings two not really appreciated presents in which the clash of values, sensitivities, and the ways of living in East and West is very clear and is apparently unrecoverable: an instrument for measuring the blood pressure for the cardiopath Mr. Gao, and a powerful anti-wrinkle cream for the aged Mrs. Gao.

The wedding banquet, set in the best Chinese restaurant in New York, is the turning point of the whole story. In a wide saloon — with Western-type, modern furniture, together with red lamps and dragons — Taiwanese, Asian Americans, Chinese, and white Americans enjoy the wonderfully presented food (many sweet and sour dishes are discernible), sitting side by side around twenty round tables, in which no hierarchical order can be possibly established. Traditional Chinese elements, such as the “lotus soup” served to the married couple in order to conceive a child very soon, are interwoven with typically Western practices: the tossing of the bride’s bouquet and the removal of her garter on the part of the newlywed husband. The atmosphere is full of joy, excitement, and communication in both Chinese and English languages, while people wolf down food and knock back drinks. “This is a cross-cultural event,” a friend of Wai Tung’s remarks, “everything goes!” (175): the name of this friend is Bob Law and his nickname is “the law,” an interesting pun in which Ang Lee seems associate a Chinese family name and its English meaning, in order to signify that, from this moment onward, the rule, the “law,” will be the communication and reconciliation between East and West. The dress-code of the bride follows the same pattern of the “cross-cultural encounter.” Wei Wei begins the banquet holding a nice, big bouquet and wearing a white, Western-style wedding gown, while in China white is the colour of mourning and red the colour suitable for every happy occasion; when Wai Tung kisses her for the first time, pushed by the shouts of encouragement of his friends, the flowers are replaced by the traditional Chinese bridal fan. Later on, Wei Wei toasts with her guests wearing a deep pink, long dress, which is still Western in its cut but, due to its tightness and colour, resembles very closely the traditional red “Chi Pao” that she eventually wears at the end of the banquet when everybody is saying goodbye. While Simon takes his mother and father back to his apartment, husband and wife, visibly drunk, are now free to go to their hotel room, but they will be alone only for a short while since their friends, armed with mahjong tables, red lanterns, some more food and drinks, will invade the room of the newlyweds according to the “old glorious tradition we’ve now brought here,” as Bob Law points out (180). The last of a series of games by which the couple is visited, consists in going to bed, under the covers, and in taking all the clothes off, one by one; only when the last piece is off, the friends will go. Wei Wei’s nakedness, after wearing the traditional wedding gowns of both Eastern and Western cultures, seems to epitomize the “encounter” by indicating that beyond different paraphernalia, different customs, and different languages, the core of life is the same: that night, Wai Tung and Wei Wei conceive a baby.

At this point of the film, in a very short time span, the audience is confronted with a possible splitting between Simon and Wai Tung, Mr. Gao’s heart-attack (he is fortunately rescued by Simon, who takes him to the hospital), Wai Tung’s “coming out” with his mother (since he cannot stand the pressure of his fake wedding anymore), and a probable abortion. In fact, Wei Wei plans to return to China and does not want to give up her career in the name of family, motherhood and the values of the patriarchal society, which places its hopes in children and, most of all, in sons.

Once again, however, Ang Lee challenges the expectations of his public and, at the end of the movie, he completes that reversal of the stereotypes regarding the traditionalist Asian parents, which seemed such a hard task to accomplish before. Mr. Gao was actually able to understand and speak English, he knew about the relationship between Wai Tung and Simon, but he had been silent. “I watch, I hear, I learn. Wai Tung is my son – so you’re my son also” (205): these are the words uttered by Mr. Gao while he hands a red envelope containing cash to Simon, in a scene that resembles the one in which he had given the nuptial gifts to Wei Wei. This sequence is divided into two parts, between which the attention is meaningfully focused on Wai Tung and Wei Wei who, on their way to the hospital to perform the abortion, decide to keep their baby while eating a big, American hamburger, having already had a Chinese lunch prepared by Simon. Throughout the movie, crossover food habits symbolize the encounter between East and West. All the recomposed family, the “extended” family — to use a more modern word — is gathered around this potential new birth: Wei Wei will be a mother and an artist; Wai Tung and Simon will continue to be a couple, and, at the same time, will have the possibility of experimenting with the joys of fatherhood; the wise patriarch will have his heir. His blissful son will never know that his father knows the truth. In the final scene of the movie, we see Mr. and Mrs. Gao walking towards the departure gate of the airport to go back to Taiwan: a shot from behind shows Simon, Wai Tung and Wei Wei tightly holding each other.



Compare the article: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1285/is_n9_v27/ai_20227111 (July 21st, 2004). Another interesting interview with Ang Lee can be read on this site http://www.peterborough.net/lifestyle/articles/anglee.asp (January 24th, 2005).

Works Cited

Costa, Shu Shu. Wild Geese and Tea, An Asian American Wedding Planner. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997.

Kim, Elaine. "Such Opposite Creatures': Men and Women in Asian American Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review: 29.1,69.

Lee, Ang. Two Films by Ang Lee. New York: The Overlook Press, 1994.