Directed by Ang Lee and written with Neil Peng and James Schamus, Xi Yan (The Wedding Banquet) tells the story of a gay Taiwanese man whose life unravels when he decides to marry a Chinese woman so she can get a green card. Things get worse when his parents arrive in America to help with the wedding while he’s dealing with his boyfriend who feels left out. The film has Lee explore the theme of homosexuality as it would something he would explore again with his 2005 masterpiece Brokeback Mountain. Starring Winston Chao, May Chin, Ah Lei Gua, Sihung Lung, and Mitchell Lichtenstein. Xi Yan is a witty yet engrossing comedy-drama from Ang Lee.
Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chao) is a gay man who lives with his boyfriend Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) as they live a happy life in New York City. Yet, Wai-Tung still has to deal with pleasing his Taiwanese parents (Sihung Lung and Ah Le Gua) for him to marry and give them a grandchild. Wai-Tung also has to deal with a penniless tenant named Wei-Wei (May Chin) who needs a green card or else she gets deported back to China. After pressure from a dating service his mother puts him through, Wai-Tung takes Simon’s idea to marry Wei-Wei to please his parents and she gets her green card.
Wai-Tung tells his parents about his engagement Wei-Wei where they reveal they decide to go to New York City to celebrate much to Wai-Tung’s horror. Simon helps out to await their arrival as they’re aware that Mr. Gao has just suffered a mild stroke weeks earlier. When Wai-Tung’s parents arrive to meet Simon and Wei-Wei, they’re happy about the upcoming marriage only to realize that Wei-Wei and Wai-Tung are marrying the next day at court. The parents reluctantly accept the wedding as the dinner is held by one of Mr. Gao’s former soldiers (Tien Pien) is the restaurant owner who offers to hold an extravagant banquet for Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei. The wedding banquet becomes a massive event with loads of people at the ceremony.
The ceremony ends up overwhelming Wai-Tung, Wei-Wei, and Simon as the party raged on afterwards where something happens that changes everything they have been planning for. With Mr. Gao’s health becoming more fragile, truths come out as the three young people figure out how to live this new life.
The film is about a gay man trying to please his family by marrying a woman so she can get her green card and he can get his parents off his back. What happens doesn’t turn out this way as the time with the Wai-Tung’s parents become much more intriguing forcing the three young people to think about their lives and future. While Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei marry for selfish reasons, they realize that their married life isn’t going to be as easy to do when his parents are around. Wei-Wei becomes sentimental and overwhelmed by the gifts Mrs. Gao gives her while Simon becomes fascinated by the parents including Mr. Gao whom he helps as a physical therapist.
The screenplay that Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Neil Peng create is one that is lively and as engrossing as it does a bit of exploration into gay life along with the idea of how families would react to the news of coming out. Since it takes place in the early 1990s when gay culture starts to become much more open, there is the struggle to come out along with the idea of a family featuring gays. Even as there’s dialogue where Mrs. Gao and Wei-Wei talk about the different roles of women in their generation and the same struggles they each have. The script is truly captivating in its study of family and culture along with the idea of what was considered to be very unconventional in terms of a family setting with these two people, a woman, and two gay men.
Lee’s direction is definitely potent in its presentation for the way he captures the chaos of the wedding banquet to the intimate settings in the townhouse Simon and Wai-Tung live in. Lee also creates some wonderful framing and compositions to the dramatic scenes without going being melodramatic or underplayed. The humor of the film is also very subtle without being too much as it’s presented in a more wild fashion for the banquet and after party scenes. While the mixture of humor and drama does make the film a bit uneven in its tone, Lee does create a fascinating yet touching film about family and acceptance.
Cinematographer Lin Jong does a great job with the colorful look of New York City in its exterior settings while creating a much vibrant yet straightforward look for the wedding banquet sequence. Editor Tim Squyres does a superb job with the editing in creating an array of stylish cuts for the film including dissolves and jump-cuts to create a lively movement for the film. Production designer Steve Rosenzweig, along with set decorator Amy Beth Silver and art director Amy Beth Silver, does an excellent job with the look of Wai-Tung and Simon‘s apartment with its clean look that is mixed with Asian artifacts along with the lavish look of the wedding banquet scene.
Costume designer Michael Clancy does a wonderful job with the costumes in the look of Wei-Wei’s wedding dress to the traditional thin dress she wears after the wedding. Sound editor Pamela Martin does a very good job with the sound to capture the intimacy of the apartment to the raucous world of New York City and the wedding banquet in all of its craziness. The film’s score by Mader is brilliant for its mix of traditional Asian music mixed in with soft orchestral arrangements to comical musical pieces to play up the film’s humor.
The casting by Judy Dennis is amazing for the ensemble that is created that includes cameos by director Ang Lee and his son Mason in the wedding scenes plus Vanessa Lang as a woman Wai-Tung is set up with early in the film, Yung-Teh Hsu as an old friend of Wai-Tung, and Tien Pien as a restaurant owner who knows Mr. Gao as he helps create the lavish wedding banquet. Ah Le Gua is wonderful as Wai-Tung’s mother who brings some humor to her maternal role along with a wonderful sentimentality in her scenes with May Chin about the young Wai-Tung. Sihung Lung is great as Mr. Gao, Wai-Tung’s father who observes everything that is happening while dealing with his own health problems as he gets to know Simon. May Chin is superb as Wei-Wei, an artist in need of a green card as meeting Wai-Tung’s parents make her think about her own family along with the unexpected relationship she has with Mrs. Gao whom she comes to think as a mother.
Mitchell Lichtenstein is excellent as Simon, an American who brings the idea for Wai-Tung to marry Wei-Wei so he can help win the approval of Wai-Tung’s parents. Instead, he unknowingly becomes part of the family while sharing his own sense of frustration and anguish over not being with Wai-Tung in an intense period. Winston Chao is brilliant as Wai-Tung, a business man trying to maintain his homosexuality while wining the approval of his parents. Chao brings a wonderfully understated yet real quality to a man who is in conflict while worrying how the truth would hurt his ailing father.
Xi Yan is a fun yet heartwarming comedy-drama from Ang Lee that features a superb cast along universal themes about family and acceptance. Fans of Lee’s work will no doubt see this as one of his finest films in its exploration of family and homosexuality that he would explore in later films. For fans of 90s gay cinema, this is one of the quintessential films as it is gives American audiences a chance to see a world that is very different but also exciting. In the end, Xi Yan is a warm yet sensational film from Ang Lee.
Ang Lee Films: Pushing Hands - Eat Drink Man Woman - Sense & Sensibility (1995 film) - The Ice Storm - Ride with the Devil - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - The Hire: Chosen - Hulk - Brokeback Mountain - Lust, Caution - Taking Woodstock - Life of Pi - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - The Auteurs #19: Ang Lee
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