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It’s not unusual for Hollywood concepts, vulnerable as they generally are, to travel in packs. It’s quite another matter, however, for the same week to bring not one but two films about gay lovers who enlist an obliging woman friend to help them hide their true lives from their tradition-minded Asian families. Even more improbably, they’re both pretty good.
Of the two, Takehiro Nakajima’s Okoge is the harder-hitting and wider-ranging. It’s more melodramatic, more violent, more sexually explicit, more tangled and ambivalent. It’s Japanese. Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet is lighter, funnier, and more set on happily-ever-after. It’s American.
Okoge opens on a Japanese beach, which is of course crowded. It’s not for a few moments, though, that the mostly female group that’s just arrived—and the viewer—notices that the narrow strip of sand is populated entirely by men. One woman is horrified; another is enchanted, and strikes up conversations and shares food with some of the men. The second woman, Sayoko (Misa Shimizu), delightedly watches two men kiss.
The men are Goh (Takehiro Murata) and Tochi (Takeo Nakahara). Tochi, the older, is unhappily married and unhappily employed, but is unprepared to sacrifice his place in society by telling either his hysterical wife or his homophobic co-workers that he’s gay. Goh is a self-employed designer and maker of leather clothing and accessories, and it’s in his apartment that the lovers meet. Soon after they’re introduced, though, Goh and Tochi’s setup is ended by the sudden arrival of the former’s mother, who moves in with her younger son after a fight with her daughter-in-law.
When Sayoko meets the lovers at a Tokyo gay bar and learns their plight, she invites them to use her bedroom. That becomes a permanent arrangement, and the three become friends. The bartender, addressing the audience as much as Sayoko, tells her she’s an okoge—a piece of crisped rice stuck to the bottom of the pot (okoma, a slang word for gay) and the closest Japanese equivalent of “fag hag,” though apparently without derogatory connotations. The giggly Sayoko, that Japanese ideal of wide-eyed girlish enthusiasm in an attractive young woman’s body, happily accepts the role.
In addition to having the demeanor of a 6-year-old skipping toward a swing set, Sayoko makes her living dubbing cartoons. Still, there’s adult stuff going on here. Writer/director Nakajima leaves little doubt what Goh and Tochi are doing in Sayoko’s bed, and among their acquaintances is a drag queen whose act includes drinking his own urine onstage. (It’s great for his skin, he insists.) Things start to get ugly when Tochi’s wife shows up, unleashing her wrath on Sayoko and soon forcing Tochi to forsake Goh. While Sayoko is consoling him at the bar, Goh points out a guy he has a crush on. The over-eager Sayoko promises to win him for Goh, a plan that does not work out at all well.
The flashbacks intended to show why Sayoko is an okoge are clumsy, both cinematically and psychologically: She’s tolerant of outsiders, fleeting scenes suggest, because she once had an American foster father, and uninterested in sex because she was (perhaps) molested by another foster father. Most of Okoge, though, artfully weaves the flamboyant and the delicate. This is a film that can convincingly render both the moment when Goh, after being ambushed with a potential fiancee, attempts to tell his family he’s gay—they studiously ignore his revelation—and the one where a gang of drag queens attacks some bill collectors who are pummeling Sayoko and Goh.
Both Okoge and The Wedding Banquet ultimately take the same far-fetched twist: The woman becomes pregnant and the gay man (or men) agrees to function as the child’s father. This development is presaged by more pain in Nakajima’s film than in Lee’s—for one thing, Sayoko is impregnated by a rapist—but it still seems glib. If the resolution of Sayoko and Goh’s relationship is simplistic, though, the larger world depicted here is as rich and colorful as the Shinjuku gay-street-scene panorama that closes the film. From Goh’s mother’s conclusion that a “gay bacteria” entered a cut in her finger when she was pregant with him to Tochi’s archetypal Japanese response to being middle-aged, jobless, and alone—“I must try harder,” he vows—Okoge surveys contemporary Japanese society with intelligence and wit.
Both of these films are in part autobiographical, but The Wedding Banquet director/co-writer Ang Lee, unlike Nakajima, is not gay. That may explain why the film’s depiction of lovers Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), though not excessively timid, is secondary to its portrayal of Wai-Tung’s relationship with his parents, who are anxious for their only child to produce an heir. It is to please those parents, the old-fashioned elders Wai-Tung left behind in Taiwan when he emigrated to New York, that the helpful Simon proposes that the hard-charging Wai-Tung marry. As an added benefit (to humanity at large more than to him), Simon suggests a bride: Wei-Wei (May Chin), an artist who has trouble paying her rent (to loft-space landlord Wai-Tung) because her employment possibilities are limited without a green card.
Simon, the more domestic of the pair, spends a little time quizzing Wei-Wei about intimate details she may need to know to fool the INS. The real project, though, becomes fooling Wai-Tung’s mom and dad (Ah-Leh Gua and Sihung Lung), who unexpectedly arrive for the wedding and stick around well into the honeymoon after Dad has a mild stroke that precludes his returning home right away. With Simon banished to the basement, Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei become something of a couple, brought together by their plan to deceive his parents and by the shared mortification of the Taiwanese wedding-feast customs to which they’re subjected after Mom and Dad, humiliated by the couple’s informal city-hall wedding, preside over a lavish wedding feast. (Simon is best man, of course.)
The wedding guests rigorously and rowdily insist on various traditions designed to force public displays of affection and, soon, a son. The beating of chopsticks on glasses requires Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei to kiss for their large audience, and after they seek refuge in their hotel room, a “newlywed invasion” leaves them in bed together, naked and drunk. Wei-Wei, who’s always been attracted to Wai-Tung, takes it from there. (In a parallel moment in Okoge, the spurned potential fiancee taunts Goh into bed, but the scene is much darker.)
This fast-moving comedy climaxes with the eponymous wedding banquet, the culmination of its exuberant, if rather sitcommy, humor. (Simon convinces Wai-Tung to marry, for example, by telling him he’ll get a tax break.) After that, the tone shifts as the film repeatedly hints, and finally declares, that Wei-Wei is pregnant. Upon this development, Lee and co-writers Neil Peng and James Schamus have to decide between the mood-altering alternative of an abortion and the improbable scenario of Wai-Tung, Wei-Wei, and Simon becoming a happy family. Given the film’s lighthearted tone—as well as its inclination to fulfill the desires of Mom and Dad, the formidable traditionalist tigers who turn out to be pussycats—the outcome is not hard to predict.
Though considerably more idyllic than Okoge, Banquet too depends on the sudden willingness of gay men who’ve never expressed an interest in fatherhood to take responsibility for a child. (At least Wai-Tung and Simon have each other; both films presume that a woman doesn’t need a lover after she has a baby.) In Taiwan, where it was the country’s first gay-themed hit movie, Lee’s film was a taboo-buster. For American audiences, it should prove considerably less potent, and some may even resent its glossy good spirits. Those good spirits are infectious, though, and as a comedic soufflé laced with a gentle tolerance theme, The Wedding Banquet is eminently satisfying.
The specter of pederasty briefly haunts The Man Without a Face, but this prosaic film is no brief for man/boy love. After all, it’s set in the ’60s, that age of baby-boomer innocence, and is based on a children’s book. Besides, the man under suspicion is Mel Gibson.
The hunky but crushingly normal actor, here making his directorial debut, is the product of a large family (10 sibs) and has a statistically unusual number of offspring (six) himself. Fatherhood is a big deal to Gibson, and Man casts him (though he reportedly was not his own first choice) as surrogate dad for an earnest young boy. The boy, an unsuccessful student who just needs a real man’s guidance, seeks a tutor to help him pass a military-boarding-school entrance exam so he can escape his excessively female environment (a mom and two sisters, one pretty hateful) and follow in the footsteps of a dead dad of whom he doesn’t know The Truth.
It’s much the same nurturing yet Old-Spice-fragrant role Gibson had in the appalling Forever Young, where he emotionally rescued the son of another single mom. (Both kids even have things about flying.) Only this time, instead of being freshly unfrozen, Gibson’s the victim of a disfiguring event that has caused him to go into seclusion in a small, coastal Maine town, where the grossed-out locals call him “hamburger head” and buzz with rumors about how he got that way (attempted suicide?) and how he supports himself (pornography?).
When Gibson undertook this project, working from Malcolm MacRury’s adaptation of Isabelle Holland’s book, he could hardly have known just how many earnest young boys would be triumphing on movie screens this summer. After Free Willy, Sleepless in Seattle, Rookie of the Year, The Secret Garden, and Searching for Bobby Fischer, it’s hard to be stirred as earnest young Chuck (Nick Stahl) discovers that he can learn Latin and Euclidean geometry and that the hideously defaced McLeod (Gibson) is not a monster. It would have been anyway, though.
Middling in both concept and execution, Man teaches the universally proclaimed (if not universally practiced) doctrine that it’s what’s inside that counts. With half his face covered by an elaborate latex simulation of scar tissue, Gibson actually delivers the “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech from The Merchant of Venice. (Come back, Hamlet, all is forgiven.) Tolerance is the message here, too, but not for anyone who’s too different.
A strict disciplinarian and moralist who putters around the house listening to opera and reciting Virgil aloud, McLeod is the civilized, grown-up version of Chuck, a neocon rebel before his time (with an anachronistically vulgar vocabulary to match). The boy attempts to offend his liberal, oft-married mom and her latest suitor, an anti-war college professor, by telling them he’d like “to drop napalm for a living,” and he stands by McLeod, even when the latter is accused of having made improper advances toward his students. Chuck is right to do so, of course, as the military-school exam underlines by giving as its translation assignment a passage from Cicero on the value of friendship. A passage from Cicero? Didn’t it occur to anyone involved with this endeavor that it would take a lot more than Chuck’s fondness for words like “suck” and “pukehead” to render The Man Without a Face anything other than quaint?