Led by Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, which became the second highest grossing motion picture in history, the summer of 1993 saw the nation's movie houses set an all time record for box office receipts. The successes included Cliffhanger, The Firm, Sleepless in Seattle, In the Line of Fire and The Fugitive. The failures included Sliver, Made in America, and Last Action Hero, the last of which managed to lose money even though it sold more than $50 million worth of tickets.
What stands out most to me about this immediate summer past is how well the industry did without successfully catering to its usual summertime family audience. Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero both featured children among their central players. But both were rated PG 13 and both were far too intense for youngsters. Spielberg may have made a ton of money, but he also squandered a measure of good will with the country's parents, many of whom came away from Jurassic Park outraged by the film's violence.
Other efforts at family filmmaking this summer ranged from the pedestrian Dennis the Menace to the insufferable Rookie of the Year. Free Willy was slightly better. Certainly the whale was gorgeous. But only Searching for Bobby Fischer stood out among this summer's Hollywood offerings for the family audience. That's why I want to recommend two independent features that opened around the country this past summer and managed to attract sadly little public notice. In their vastly different ways Into the West and The Wedding Banquet were the family pictures to see. Put them on your must-rent list when they make their way to video.
Near the beginning of Into the West, a most amazing and wonderful thing happens. Two little ragamuffin Irish boys take a huge white stallion up the steps of a highrise Dublin tenement building and into the dingy apartment where they reside. For some time thereafter they include the horse in their daily routine. He watches television with them in the living room, dines with them in the kitchen and bathes with them in the shower. The possibility of a horse's long being able to abide such confinement is an act of fantasy, of course. But that's just the picture's point. Such is the magic power of a child's innocence and imagination. It is a power strong enough to irrigate the desert of neglect, strong enough to repel the crush of poverty.
Written by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) and directed by Mike Newel (Enchanted April), Into the West becomes the story of two little boys' magical adventure in flight from a world of cruel adults and brutal urban realities. Twelve-year-old Tito Riley (Ruaidhri Conroy) and his eight-year-old brother Ossie (Ciaran Fitzgerald) come from a band of Irish gypsies who call themselves "Travelers" and trace their heritage to ancient Celtic times. The Travelers have suffered a fate recalling that of the Australian Aborigine and the American Indian. They are despised and disinherited in their own land. Both the boys' parents belonged to a caravanof Travelers, but since their mother Mary died while giving birth to Ossie, their Papa (Gabriel Byrne) has forsaken wayfaring for a grim life on the dole in a Dublin housing project. It seems that during her difficult and fatal labor Mary was denied admittance to a hospital because of her identity as a Traveler. As a result, heartbroken and confused, Papa has turned his back on his own people. But he has hardly found solace and a warm reception at the hands of mainstream Irish society. He loves his sons dearly and wants only the best for them, but in his depression, loneliness and self-loathing, he has become distant and impotent as a father.
Ossie and Tito's escape from the dreary circumstances of their Dublin life begins with the arrival of their grandfather (Johnny Murphy) who comes for a visit and brings with him the majestic white steed he calls Tir na nOg. From the moment young Ossie lays eyes on the stallion he declares with childish exuberance, "He's my horse!" And indeed Grandfather allows Ossie and Tito to keep Tir na nOg despite the fact that they have no funds to support the horse and no place to board him other than in their own apartment. Miraculously, it seems that Tir na nOg causes little trouble despite living somewhere above the fifth floor in a towering slum. But eventually neighbors complain, authorities arrive and difficulties develop. Corrupt cops conspire to steal Tir na nOg and sell him as a prize steeplechaser. Then Ossie and Tito succeed in spiriting him away and lead rotten cops, thieving horse breeders and concerned members of their family on a chase from Dublin clear to the open Atlantic on the western coast.
Into the West works perfectly well as a straightforward family adventure film. Children and adults alike should prove enraptured by the Riley brothers' daring and the melodrama of pursuit and narrow escape. In this regard the picture has an uncommon wholesomeness. Unlike many American films featuring children heroes, Tito and Ossie aren't wisecracking little smartasses. And despite their flight from the world of adults, they aren't depicted as inherently defiant of authority. Also, that which they accomplish, fantastic though it is, nonetheless proceeds directly from a child's capabilities. They aren't super-tots, in other words, just sweet scared kids who do what kids can—ride a horse, run and hide. In sum, I can't imagine a more satisfying movie outing for parent and child together.
More sophisticated film buffs don't want to overlook this picture, however. Miramax Films marketed Into the West as family fare and booked it into the suburban mall multiplexes. But before doing so the compnay considered releasing the film to the art house circuit where Sheridan's and Newel's work has more characteristically been exhibited. Into the West may have the simplicity and family orientation associated with Disney, but it also has the layering and resonance of art. Beneath the adventure story lie some pointed ruminations about the importance of cultural heritage.
The Travelers are depicted as a rural, preindustrial people who practice age-old crafts and share with one another a love of music, dancing and communal living. When Papa takes his boys off the road, he deposits them in Dublin, that eastmost and most Anglicized of Irish cities. And he houses them in a graffiti-blighted concrete jungle. When the youngsters flee, they instinctively head west, away from urban Ireland and toward that part of the Emerald Isle which has proved most stubbornly rural and traditional. Astride Tir na nOg and following his magical lead, Tito and Ossie come to their mother's grave and find a needed peace with what happened to her. Symbolically, they employ the power of imagination and fantasy to fill the void of a missing mother's love, to embrace with their hearts what they remain too young to grasp with their intellects.
Comparable touches are sprinkled throughout the film. Tir na nOg lives peaceably in the Riley apartment until neighbors interfere. A child's fantasy is harmless. But when the police try to remove the horse against the boys' wishes, Tir na nOg becomes violent, kicking down walls in his struggles against restraint. The danger lies not in the fantasy but in fearing it and in needlessly trying to restrict or deny it. Late in the film Sheridan and Newel pause to drive home the connection between fantasy and their own cinematic art. In a small west-Ireland town with Tito and Ossie barely a step ahead of their pursuers, the boys hide in the movie house on the town square. They are hungry, and so the boys, and the magical Tir n nOg as well, nourish themselves and fuel themselves for another day's flight with movieland manna: popcorn.
Into the West is a perfect film for parents and children to see together, for it will thoroughly please both. It will appeal to a child's sense of wonder even as it satisfies an adult's desire for substance. The picture's sweetness of spirit is infectious. It makes you glad to be human.
My classification of the comedy The Wedding Banquet as a family film will strike some as odd. The picture deals forthrightly with homosexuality and is certainly aimed at a more sophisticaed audience than is the run-of-the-mill family flick. Yet, in its most important aspect, The Wedding Banquet is about family bonds, the ties of blood which hold us together across time and vast distances. Writ large, the film is about brotherhood in the family of humankind. Thus, despite the maturing of its basic subject matter, I wouldn't hesitate to share it with my children.
Scripted by Taiwanese director Ang Lee along with Neil Peng and James Schamus, The Wedding Banquet is the story of Wai-Tung (Winston Chao), a thirtyish Taiwanese-American making a handsome living in New York as a real estate investor. Wai-Tung remains fiercely loyal to his parents (Sihung Lung, Ah-Leh Gua) in Taiwan, but he can't grant their fondest wish that he marry a Taiwanese girl and bear them grandchildren. He can't because he's a gay, a fact he's never confided to them. Wai-Tung harbors no guilt over his sexual orientation. He's comfortable with his gay identity and enjoys a long-term relationship with a Manhattan doctor named Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein). But Wai-Tung nonetheless feels guilty about disappointing his parents. To alleviate some part of that guilt, Wai-Tung acquiesces to Simon's suggestion that he stage an "in-name-only" marriage to Wei-Wei (May Chin), an illegal immigrant artist living in one of Wai-Tung's buildings. Wei-Wei knows that Wai-Tung is gay, but by marrying him she can get a green card and thereafter live and work in America legally. The plan seems good-hearted, harmless and foolproof until Wei-Tung's parents announce their intention to journey to New York for the wedding.
Lee and his co-writers might well have settled for the kind of mistaken identity farce that reaped such a harvest of laughs and financial rewards in La Cage Aux Folles. But they aim for and hit a much higher target. Though their touch is everywhere light, they have made a film about the dignity of all human beings whatever our race, creed, gender or sexual orientation, a film about our decisive commonality whatever our cultural distinctiveness.
That's hardly to imply that The Wedding Banquet isn't funny, for it's very funny indeed. Simon and Wai-Tung's frenetic attempt to parentize their home may be fairly predictable, but it's still laugh-out-loud funny as the two scramble to replace all erotica with more traditional items of home decoration. Before Simon and Wai-Tung hit upon the idea of the bogus marriage to Wei-Wei, Wai-Tung's mother tries to mate her son through a computer service. Wai-Tung determines to sabotage that exercise by describing his ideal as a 5'8" Ph.D. opera singer fluent in five languages. Later, the filmmakers poke fun at Wai-Tung's devout capitalism. Simon can overcome his lover's reluctance to marry Wei-Wei only by pointing out the tax advantages. Elsewhere, Lee generates laughs from Simon's faltering command of Chinese and from Wei-Wei's almost utter ineptitude in the kitchen. It is important to note, however, that Lee has fun with his characters without ever making fun of his characters. Nobody is subject to ridicule. Nobody is reduced to stereotype or caricature. Everybody is afforded his or her dignity. All the characters are rendered as fundamentally decent, well-intentioned, intelligent and likable.
Among the many memorable scenes in The Wedding Banquet, several are especially salient. The marriage celebration itself is a rich introduction to delightful traditions associated with the Chinese wedding: feeding the bride with lotus-blossom soup, testing the blindfolded bride with anonymous kisses, invading the bridal suite to supervise the marital disrobing. Just when we fear that Wai-Tung's father may find Wei-Wei contemptible for her culinary inadequacies, she wins him over with her expertise about their shared fascination with calligraphy. On several occasions Simon tugs at our hearts as he shows his feelings for Wai-Tung's parents, feelings that arise expressly because the old couple are his lover's parents. But, of course, the root of his feelings must remain camouflaged. And most affecting, Wai-Tung reveals the depth of his love and admiration for his father, even as he hides from his father his truest face.
Centering itself in its characters, The Wedding Banquet is not an overtly political film. But we can discover in its subtext some key political points. One has to do exclusively with the Chinese as they have divided themselves into two Chinese nations. It's no accident that Wai-Tung is from Taiwan and Wei-Wei from the mainland. Symbolically, for countries as for individuals, though they are seemingly incompatible, union between them is not only possible, but entirely capable of bearing genuine fruit. A second political point is deftly aimed at American viewers. Throughout most of the film, Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei speak to each other in Chinese as we read along in subtitles. Via the subtitles we come to know them both as bright, articulate, thoughtful and funny people. It is an abrupt shock, then, when Wei-Wei stumbles so clumsily through the English lines of her marriage vows that we can barely understand her. In those moments we are forced to face the prejudices with which we've routinely responded to those with limited English skills whom we've not had the privilege of coming to know so well in their own language.
We hear a lot about multi-culturalism these days. Academics argue about how much non-Western history and literature to include in core college curricula. School districts debate the merits of bilingual education. Politicians spar over immigration quotas. Ideology confronts ideology. And what gets lost, sometimes by both sides, are people. That's why I found relevant parts of Andrei Codrescu's Road Scholar so moving—because it introduces us to the personal face of immigration and reminds us how special a place America seems to so many who have only recently arrived. And that's also why I rank Gregory Nava's El Norte one of the truly important films of the 1980s —because it puts a human face on that despised Hispanic group of people we disparage as "wetbacks." Ang Lee performs a similar service for Chinese immigrants. In its sunniness of spirit, The Wedding Banquet reminds me a lot of director Norman Jewison and writer John Patrick Shanley's wonderful Moonstruck, another mature motion picture that I'd term suitable family fare. Moonstruck was also a picture without a villain, a picture where problems were located in circumstances and not in people. In fact, if The Wedding Banquet has a flaw, it's that the whole story is probably too good to be true. The people here act perhaps too well. They are kinder, more accepting and more forgiving than people most times really are. But then, they act the way people ought to act, and acting the way we ought seems to me one of those elemental imperatives urged most commonly in the warmth of the family hearth.