For our 12th Annual Winter Marathon (the Winter Marathon is getting OLD, but it’s not as old as my car or one of my cats!) Kevin and I decided on showing films from Ang Lee, easily one of the most versatile modern filmmakers.

We began with 1993’s more-or-less light comedy The Wedding Banquet.


The premise behind The Wedding Banquet is fairly simple – Wai-Tung, a Taiwanese immigrant living in New York City is gay, and has been in a committed relationship with Simon for several years, but he hasn’t told his parents because he is convinced they would disapprove (particularly his father, a retired Taiwanese Army officer).  As you can imagine, it’s only a matter of time before something’s gotta give.  Getting anxious for a grandchild, his parents start signing Wai-Tung up for dating services and generally being pains in the neck about the whole thing.  This includes a dead-end sideplot where Wai-Tung makes ridiculous demands with the dating service only to get a pretty close match – a woman who also has a secret lover, this one male but white.  After all this, Simon has a great idea – why doesn’t Wai-Tung marry Wei-Wei, a tenant living in the building Wai-Tung owns, who is struggling to make ends meet and needs a green card on top of that to avoid being sent back to mainland China.

Sorry, we would have made it years earlier but your mother had to make sure her hair was in a perfect semicircle

But, of course, Wai-Tung’s parents insist on coming out for the wedding and staying for weeks on end, so the whole thing ends up being a bit complicated.  For one, Wai-Tung has to pretend that he’s renting a room from Simon (his own building is too crappy to live in – well, that probably is a legit excuse), but it’s impossible for them to hide that they’re clearly closer than just landlord-tenant.

Immigration Fraud For Dummies

Without consulting the ‘rents, Wai-Tung plans a simple wedding.  OK, more than a simple wedding.  He makes an appointment down at the local Justice of the Peace.  This is horribly disappointing to his mother, who is in danger of crying herself to a dehydration death when, at the post-courthouse meal the small wedding party (including Simon, of course) finds out that the restaurant they are eating at is owned by a former army colleague of his father’s.  When the army colleague learns the situation, he insists on hosting a lavish wedding banquet for the happy couple.

First, we’ll dress you up as a candy cane, then we’ll wrap this huge ribbon around you!

Well, mom is ecstatic, because she’s going to get a proper ceremony for her son and you-would-think-daughter-in-law, and of course this means that she can have her own wedding dress altered to fit Wei-Wei.  Of course, the whole thing just puts more and more stress on Wai-Tung and Simon’s relationship (still hidden).

Everyone’s a little queer/Why can’t he be a little straight?

The banquet itself is attended by a large number of family and friends, and is as lavish of an affair as you would imagine, and then some.  Of course, the whole evening wouldn’t be complete without a huge coterie of young wedding revelers breaking into the honeymoon suite and forcing the newlywed couple into various, progressively more intimate games that finally result in the couple drunk and naked under the sheets before everybody will finally leave.  (Now, this isn’t wholly unreasonable.  A buddy of mine married a woman of Chinese descent, and the wedding was surrounded by activities that clearly were important to her family but had no basis in western traditions.  No naked-under-the-sheets game, though.  At least, not that I was invited to.)

And guess what?  In that situation, “things get out of hand” – Wei-Wei gets pregnant, and Wai-Tung gets to retire batting 1.000.  AS you might imagine, this causes way more stress between Simon and Wai-Tung.  As you might imagine.  But I mean, really, the whole thing was Simon’s idea in the first place.

As it turns out, Wai-Tung’s dad has a minor stroke, and Wai-Tung confesses the truth about himself and Simon to his mother, who insists that they never tell his father.

Oh, and to add to the stress, there’s another dead-end sideplot about Wei-Wei deciding to get an abortion, stress, stress, stress, oh, nevermind, she’s keeping it and everybody gets to be grandparents again.

Of course this isn’t Mao!  I’m Taiwanese!

Of course, at the end, Dad reveals to Simon that he’s onto them, and accepts Simon as his son-in-law, but insists that Simon not tell anybody.  Some sort of saving face, I guess?  but really, it just means that everybody has to keep up the act, even though everybody knows everything.  Only Simon, and dad, and tens of millions of viewers are in on the secret that there’s no secret to be kept.  That’s kind of cruel of dad.  Oh well, the final scene with mom and dad walking away to their plane back to Taiwan is pretty cool.

For the second film, we selected a Movie From The Year 2000…man, that was so, like, 20 years ago!…Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  I had seen CTHD sometime upon its initial release (though most likely as a DVD, not on the big screen) and I have to say, I didn’t remember a thing about it.  It seems that there’s a somewhat good reason for that: the movie just doesn’t make a lot of narrative sense.

Good, Anakin, good!

We start with Mu Bai.  Mu Bai is a famous swordsman who has decided to retire.  He seems a bit young to hang ’em up, but being a samurai is probably pretty hard work, so he can be excused.  It’s not really clear to me why he decided to retire.  Mu Bai just so happens to have a very special sword called the Green Destiny.  It’s not really clear to me why the sword is so special, it just is.  Hey, it’s got some pretty awesome etching on it, and it manages to break off several other blades in the film while going unscathed itself, so it must be pretty good.

We’ll disguise the lapel mic as a chopstick, it’s brilliant!

Mu Bai has a friend named Shu Lien.  In point of fact, they should be lovers, as they both have the mutual hots, and apparently have forever, and it’s not really clear to me why they aren’t, but they aren’t.  Wikipedia says that Shu Lien had been engaged to Mu Bai’s homebrew back in the day, but having seen the movie twice I don’t think that fact stuck with me either time.  Anyhow, Mu Bai asks Shu Lien to take the Green Destiny back to his benefactor Sir Te (“dad” from our last film!) in Beijing.  This decision seems arbitrary.

Never point a sword at somebody unless you intend to stab with it

And, wouldn’t you know it, the Green Destiny soon gets stolen by a masked thief who later turns out to be Jen Yu, a teenaged princess who is about to be married off but would much rather live a life of swords and sorcery.  She leads Shu Lien on a rooftop chase, leaping from building to building like a young Dick Van Dyke on some Poppins-provided LSD.

Of course, it turns out that Jen is so proficient at martial arts skills despite being a princess and all because for years and years her nanny has secretly been Jade Fox in hiding, Jade Fox being a renegade swordswoman who many years ago murdered Mu Bai’s master.  At any rate, we get an initial confrontation between Mu Bai and Shu Lien on one side and Jade Fox and Jen on the other, but (for the main characters at least) the whole thing turns out in a draw.

We could storm Helm’s Deep, just you and I!

Then, a dude named Lo breaks into Jen’s bedroom.  We get a long flashback scene to when Jen was, oh, at least 13 days younger than she is now, and we get to see how Lo, a desert bandit, raided her party and stole her comb, and how she chased him down through vast wildernesses to get it back, and in the process fell in love with him.  Also, he told her a story about a guy who wished for world peace or something and then jumped off a cliff to make his wish come true – he was pure of heart so he didn’t die.  Anyway, this whole flashback is all a long way of setting up (a very long way, to be frank) the idea that Lo doesn’t want Jen to marry whoever the dude is.

But she marries him anyway.

Then she runs away on he wedding night.

Life is like a box of chocolates Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, everything probably happens for a reason, but hell if there’s anybody to tell you what that reason is.

Flying Chinese, Hidden Wires

Anyway, at this point, the narrative really goes off the rails.  Shu Lien battles Jen, and wins with a sword broken by Green Destiny, but allows Jen to escape.  Then Mu Bai confronts Jen and tells her he wants to train her, and she accepts if he can recover Green Destiny from her in three moves.  He does it in one.  But being the spoiled child that she is, she then goes back on her word.  So Mu Bai throws Green Destiny over a waterfall and Jen jumps after it, where she is somehow rescued by Jade Fox, but only rescued in the most literal sense as Jade Fox drugs her to sleep, waiting to ambush Mu Bai with poisoned darts.  Mu Bai kills Jade Fox, but is struck by a poisoned dart and dies, and Jen finds Lo, and wishing to be together with him in the desert, jumps off a cliff.  Is she pure of heart enough not to die?  We don’t know.  The movie ends.  (But seriously, she’s such a rotten brat that you kind of have to figure she just splats at the bottom.)

I really thought that this movie would make more sense the second time.  I’m nearly 20 years older, I’ve got a lot more experience in watching films, I don’t remember caring to see the film the first time around, so I might have been ignoring it a bit, and, hey, let’s be honest, the first time there’s a decent chance I was a bit intoxicated as well.  I’m a bit relieved to say that the movie made zero more sense the second time around.  It’s a beautiful movie, and perhaps there are conventions of the genre that I’m not really keyed in to, but narrative-wise it’s just a mess.  Not Ang Lee’s strongest outing.

To close out the marathon, we went with the 2012 fantastical film Life of Pi.  Life of Pi was adapted from a book that really twisted me around.  I began enjoying it, but by the time I got about halfway through, I was ready for it to be over.  But the book plodded forward, asking the reader to suspend disbelief more and more until I was pretty sure when I finished it I was going to throw it against the wall – then in the final 10 pages or so, the book pulled off one of the great endings of all time.  Happily, the movie delivered the same ending, and when we decided on Ang Lee for the marathon, I knew there was little choice it would be our closer.

Say what you will, at least I’m not Tobey Maguire

The action of the film is actually told in flashback – in the present day, an author has pointed towards a man named Pi Patel, whose story is said to be worthy of a book.  Pi (whose real name is Piscine Molitor Patel – he was named after a swimming pool in France) agrees to tell his story.

Don’t kill that goat that lays the golden manchego

Pi was born and raised in Pondicherry, India, and there are basically two important aspects to his pre-teen years.  The first is that his father owned the local zoo.  While this will play a major role later in the film, the big thing form Pi’s younger years was a lesson taught to him by his father when he was being too careless around the zoo’s signature tiger, Richard Parker – he showed his son just how quickly a hungry tiger takes care of a goat.  (Hint – it’s fast.)

If Jesus had a sports bar

The other thing is that Pi has had an interesting religious journey – he began, as one might expect, as a Hindu, but then converted to Christianity (without abandoning Hinduism) and then subsequently converted to Islam (without abandoning either of the first two).  His family insisted that he’d have to choose which religion to follow, as he couldn’t follow all three.  He didn’t seem to think there was much reason to choose, and was happy taking the parts of each religion he liked.

I don’t see James Cameron anywhere – I think it’s safe!

When Pi was 16, his father sold the zoo and the animals and the family was to move to Canada.  They booked cheap-if-not-luxurious passage on the same freighter carrying the animals.  Unfortunately, out in the western Pacific during a thunderstorm something went wrong, and the ship sank.

It’s kind of like a really dark Dr. Dolittle

In the chaos, Pi ended up alone on a lifeboat.  Well, alone, except for a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan, and a hyena.

I’m sick of all there m’erf’ing tigers on this m’erf’ing boat!

Oh yeah, and hiding under the canvas covering – Richard Parker.  But the rest of the boat’s crew, and the animals – and Pi’s family – have certainly drowned.  Before too long, the hyena has killed the zebra, and shortly after that, the orangutan.  At this point, Richard Parker killed the hyena, leaving Pi the enviable task of trying to survive on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

Obviously, he lived.

He accomplished this with a decent amount of ingenuity, rigging up a raft attached to the lifeboat to provide a sanctuary, and eventually coming to a tenuous truce with the carnivore – partly by catching him fish to eat.

Transgenic GFP whale – available now from Cetagen!

And what follows is a somewhat long sequence of adventures, storms, swarms of flying fish, bioluminescent whales, the whole nine yards of what you’d expect on a long float across the Pacific.

He’s become an old meerkat lady!

Oh yes, and then there’s the bizarre floating meerkat island that magically turns acidic after dark, digesting and eating anything that isn’t safely stowed in the trees.  Oh, or the trees.  It doesn’t digest the trees.  (Hey, we can’t either, so…)  You can see why I was thinking about throwing the book against the wall, when the whole voyage started out with this extremely interesting “how do you deal with a tiger” concept but slowly devolved into a series of increasingly ridiculous scenes.

On the bright side, he’s a shoe-in for the lead in the remake of the Machinist

But, finally, the lifeboat washed up on the shore of Mexico, with Richard Parker escaping into the jungle and Pi laid up in the hospital for quite some time.  And who should show up at the hospital but a pair of insurance agents from the company that covered the sunken ship, looking for answers to the question of why the ship went down.  Pi doesn’t know why the boat sunk, but he told them his story anyway.  They were, evidently, unsatisfied with the story.  They didn’t believe it.

So Pi told them a different story.

In Pi’s second story, there are no zoo animals on the lifeboat.  There is Pi, his mother, a severely injured sailor, and the ship’s sadistic cook. Assuming the sailor wouldn’t live, the sailor killed him to use as fishing bait.  When Pi’s mother objected, the cook killed her, too.  And Pi killed the cook, then drifted alone across the ocean.  The insurance executives didn’t much like this story, either.

The writer, being trained in these sorts of things, identifies the allegorical characters – the zebra was the sailor, the orangutan was his mother, the hyena was the cook…meaning that the tiger had to be Pi himself.

Pi points out that regardless of the story, his family ends up dead in both, and neither explains why the ship sunk.  Then he asks the writer which story he prefers.  The writer prefers the story with the tiger.  “And so it goes with God,” says Pi.  Evidently, despite their initial skepticism of Pi’s story, the insurance agents preferred that one too.  At the end of their report, a copy of which Pi keeps, they write “Mr. Patel’s is an astounding story, courage and endurance unparalleled in the history of ship-wrecks. Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.”