Before Ang Lee was the double Oscar-winning helmer of Brokeback Mountain and Life Of Pi (incidentally, neither of which won the Best Picture Oscar) he was a young director who from his very first movie was mixing his Asian heritage with the West. Indeed, when talking of the rise of Ang Lee, one of the keys is his partnership with James Schamus, who co-wrote and produced most of his movies. This mix of Eastern and Western storytelling helped Lee to be able to fully inhabit a variety of different worlds like few other directors ever have.
Before he came to many people’s attention with Sense & Sensibility he made three features – Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman – which have been brought together for the first time in the UK for the Ang Lee Trilogy DVD release (others have referred to the films as the ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy). They are entertaining and interesting movies, with the first two in particular feeling like they’re from a director in training but with great hints at where he ended up.
For example, while Lee had the most successful gay-themed film ever with Brokeback Mountain, back in 1992 he made The Wedding Banquet. The film is about Taiwanese born Wai-Tung Gao, who has moved to the US and is living with his boyfriend, Simon, in Manhattan. However, while they’re happy and successful, Wai-Tung has never told his parents that he’s gay. As he’s getting older, his folks are becoming increasingly obsessed with finding him a wife, even to the point of trying to thrust ‘suitable’ women on him.
To get them off his back Wai-Tung concocts a plan with his penniless Chinese tenant, Wei-Wei, to enter a marriage of convenience, which will help her get a green card and him to get his parents off his back. However, things get complicated when Mr. & Mrs. Gao arrive in America with plans for an elaborate wedding, despite Wai-Tung’s hope they will be satisfied with something far simpler. Wei-Wei may also want something more than she’s letting on, and with Simon hanging around as Wai-Tung’s friend, they may not be able to keep their secret forever.
Although this sort of film seems a tiny bit old-fashioned now (not least due to the 1990s clothes), at the time it took on an unusual subject in an unusual way. It was amongst the vanguard of films looking at gay issues in a mainstream filmmaking way. It uses many of the tropes of the Hollywood rom-com to tell a story about real modern issues, most notably the clash for those who’ve moved to the US from a very different culture, here seen through the eyes of a man who doesn’t believe his own country – or family – can accept him for who he is. And just as interestingly it does so without feeling the need to pander to the idea that everyone must speak English all the time, as despite being set in America more than half the dialogue is in Mandarin.
The movie has massive empathy for its character and most of the time it’s a lot of fun (the first wedding scene includes one of my favourite moments in cinema, which never fails to make me laugh). It does have a few problematic aspects, but for the most part it’s an entertaining and still very valid look at culture clash, with a rather sweet and devoted gay couple at its centre. Indeed, Simon deserves a medal for going along with everything to the point that he does. Like its use of language, despite the film using mainstream story tropes it doesn’t shy away from making Wai-Tung and Simon feel like a real gay couple who enjoy a real physical and emotional relationship.
The three-disc Ang Lee Trilogy release also includes Lee’s first feature, Pushing Hands, which shares some thematic traits with Wedding Banquet, as it’s about an old Asian man going to live in Westchester, New York with his son and his American wife, which ends up disrupting all their lives. It’s interesting and very watchable, although rather rough around the edges, particularly in its development of its characters.
There’s also the film which really helped Lee make his mark, Eat Drink Man Woman, which is a wonderful film that centres around a chef who lives at home with his three daughters. Each week they prepare an elaborate Sunday dinner, and it is through these that we see the development of their lives and how the fact both the younger and older generations feel responsible for the other, affects the course of their lives. It’s sweet, tender and poignant, with Lee showing off his knack for creating a fully believable world for his characters to inhabit.
Overall Verdict: A great set of films showing how even when he was and up and coming filmmaker, Ang Lee certainly knew how to put together a worthwhile movie, mixing East and West to create something that feels both familiar and fresh at the same time. And it’ll certainly interest Brokeback fans to see his earlier dalliance with gay characters and themes.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac