Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet is a foreign-language comedy that follows the story of Wai-Tung, a young, gay, Taiwanese man and his struggle to appease his parents’ wish for grandchildren while living in America with his white boyfriend. While the title and the central plot theme of a wedding sets the film up as a romantic comedy, as the film progresses, the focus shifts more towards Wai-Tung’s relationship with his parents and the sacrifices he has to make for their sake. Throughout the film, Lee makes references to Chinese culture and comedic jabs at Chinese stereotypes to highlight the cultural differences between Wai-Tung’s Chinese background and the life he tries to establish for himself in America. Ultimately, the film becomes a commentary on the lives of Chinese-American immigrants and their struggle in balancing their American lifestyles and the Chinese traditions of their families.
The first instance where we see the clash between cultures is when Wai-Tung and Simon, his boyfriend, attempt to thwart Wai-Tung’s parents attempt to find him a proper girlfriend through the Taiwanese Singles Club. The shift in mood of the discussion between Wai-Tung and his Singles Club date from a light-hearted discussion about opera and white boyfriends to the news of Wai-Tung’s father’s stroke highlights how loyalty to the family can change an entire person’s identity and life. At first, Wai-Tung shows no hesitation in defying his parent’s wishes, putting down ridiculous standards for his ideal girlfriend. To him, his parents are like a distant entity (he doesn’t even call them — instead, his mother leaves tapes for him to listen to when she wants to communicate with him) and he lives a life separate from his parents. However, once he learns of his father’s stroke and his desire to see his grandchild, Wai-Tung’s initial flippancy about marriage suddenly dissipates. The conversation between Wai-Tung and his date is translated as “Your father’s dying wish was to see the birth of his grandchild,” but in Mandarin, the phrase literally translates as “Your father had something that he couldn’t swallow. He hasn’t held his grandchild in his arms yet.” In Chinese, the literal translation has a meaning similar to “regret” or “dying wish,” and upon hearing those words, Wai-Tung’s demeanor changes. The date becomes an unexpected connection between Wai-Tung and his parents, and her words strike a chord with him. Here, the audience can see Wai-Tung’s inner conflict between his love for his parents and his own life in America. Although Wai-Tung wants to lie to his parents and sabotage their plans for his marriage, he doesn’t want to deprive his father of what he wants the most. Despite the freedom that being in America away from his parents brings to Wai-Tung, he realizes that the liberty he has in America is still restricted by his concern and care for his parents.
The difference in cultures is also highlighted in the way that Ang Lee plays with language throughout the film. While most of the film is in Mandarin Chinese, there are moments when the characters speak in English, especially when the discussion involves Simon, the only white main character in the film. However, the use of language also serves to play with the relationships between the characters — for example, the argument between Wai-Tung, Simon, and Wei-Wei after the discovery of Wei-Wei’s pregnancy happens at the dining table in front of Wei-Tung’s parents, but they are none the wiser because the argument is in English, which they don’t understand. Instead, the parents think that the three of them are arguing about rent, and are puzzled by the intense reactions. Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei often switch between Mandarin and English in the presence of different people throughout the film; they also use their bilingualism to their advantage to either hide or change the meaning of things throughout the film as well. In many cases, Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei use their roles as translators to change the reality of those around them; Simon often asks “What did they say?” during dinners with Wai-Tung’s family, in which Wai-Tung would respond with a loose or inaccurate translation, and Wei-Wei occasionally changes the meaning of Simon’s words when he attempts to make conversation with Wai-Tung’s mother. Wei-Wei takes it a step further when she calls her parents and speaks to them in Shanghainese, a dialect that is generally incomprehensible to those who only speak Mandarin. During her most vulnerable moment, she connects to her family in China and “distances” herself from those who support and care for her in America, who wouldn’t be able to understand her Shanghainese. While their bilingualism can be used to bridge the gap between America and China, the use of English in front of Wai-Tung’s parents or the use of Mandarin in front of Simon is used to also create tension in the family. This sly manipulation of language is unique to the two immigrant characters, and it also serves to complicate the relationships between the other characters in the film.
Finally, the juxtaposition of Chinese and American heritage throughout the film and Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei’s reactions to them demonstrate their struggle to find a happy medium between the two cultures. For instance, the transformation of Wai-Tung and Simon’s house into one that would be approved by Wai-Tung’s parents included setting up Chinese antiques, scrolls, and calligraphy paintings all over the house. The film shows various shots of typically “American” mementoes, from cheesy family photos to souvenirs, getting replaced by their “Chinese” counterparts. While Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei struggle to assume the persona of a happy Chinese couple, their discomfort with their heritage is apparent as they try to adjust to the new house, especially in the scenes where Wei-Wei, who creates modern art, rattles off a rehearsed and forced analysis of Wai-Tung’s father’s calligraphy painting, or when she tries to cook Chinese food with no avail and needs to get Simon to finish the job for her. The wedding scene also serves as another moment of juxtaposition as Eastern and Western wedding traditions are merged together in the ceremony. The white guests at the wedding react with confused amusement to many of the traditions, and as an American audience, we place ourselves in their shoes as we watch the film with the same sort of bewilderment. Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei, who originally wanted a simple and discreet City Hall wedding, exhibit the same sort of confusion as they get coerced into various wedding traditions by their Chinese friends and relatives, and the audience is able to sympathize with them as well. Through these scenes, we see Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei’s realization that their lives are much more Americanized than they had expected, and that connecting to their Chinese culture proves to be a harder task than it seems.
Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet is a romantic comedy that uses foreign language and the unique heritage of its protagonists to shed light on the complex cultural and emotional relationships between immigrants and their families. Wai-Tung’s initial detachment from his family in China change with the arrival of the Taiwanese date and news of his father’s stroke, which forces him to think about his family as priority over his life in America. After the family comes to America, Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei learn to manipulate their knowledge of both English and Mandarin to try to get the situation to work in their favor — however, it doesn’t go exactly the way that they planned. The clear cultural differences between their everyday lives and the lives that they were expected to live cause Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei to struggle with fitting into a life that is expected to be natural for them to assume. Therefore, The Wedding Banquet becomes a story of Chinese immigrants who try to find the delicate balance between two different cultures. Ang Lee provides a new twist on the story of immigrants; for two immigrants who have become accustomed to life in the United States, their challenge is not learning to adjust to life in America, but learning how to accept and embrace the culture of their families.