So Queer Yet So Straight: Ang Lee's the Wedding Banquet and Brokeback Mountain

Article excerpt

THE TERM "NEW QUEER CINEMA" was coined by film critic B. Ruby Rich to describe the emergence in the early 1990s of a number of independent films that dealt frankly, even aggressively, with queer politics, culture, and identity ("New Queer").1 Writing for the Guardian in September 2005, Rich described Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) as "the most important film to come out of America in years," and credited it with bringing about a "shift" in queer cinema of a "scope and tenor so profound as to signal a new era" ("Hello" par. 2). With Rich's argument in mind, I explore in this article some of the challenges involved in seeing Ang Lee as an exponent of "queer cinema." Through a close reading of his two "queer" films-The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Brokeback Mountain-I shall define the particular quality that sets these films apart from other queer films. What makes these films distinguished and original, I argue, is not so much that Lee has embraced "queer cinema" per se; rather, in each film Lee has come up with a cogent and credible way to reconcile the sensibility of "queer" with the formalist aesthetic of "conventional" narratives. In the process, Lee may have perfected his own subgenre-the "queer" film done "straight"-through his ability to balance and preserve both the power of "queer" content and the integrity of "straight" narrative style.

Strange Bedfellows: Queer Cinema and Ang Lee

There are broadly three ways to categorize "queer cinema" (Benshoffand Griffin 1-2).2 The first way is to look at the status of the filmmakers: "queer cinema" describes films made by gays and lesbians. The second is to look at the content of the films: "queer cinema" describes films that address issues relevant to gays and lesbians. The third way is to look at the reception of the films: "queer cinema" describes films that are watched by gays and lesbians. The implication of reception can be narrow or broad. Narrowly, it means being embraced as a "cult movie" by queer audiences. Broadly, it means being subjected to a queer theoretical approach to cinema; hence potentially any film can be "queered" by a queer interpretation. Most of the filmmakers who belong to the "New Queer Cinema" movement of the 1990s have benefited directly from the insights of queer theory.3 For them, filmmaking and theoretical practices are interconnected. Consequently, the works of these filmmakers tend to reflect the polemical concerns of postmodernism and avant-garde queer theory. These films are characterized by their idiosyncratic visual vocabulary; theoretical sophistication; overt political thrust; self-conscious stylization; uncompromising thematic exploration; and intellectual skepticism of conventional "metanarratives."4

By any of the above criteria, Ang Lee would seem a most unlikely advocate of "queer cinema." Lee is a Taiwanese American whose first language is Chinese. Lee is a married heterosexual with no apparent political affiliation or background in civil rights activism. Lee, to date, has directed ten major films, films so diverse in subject matter that he is arguably the most wide-ranging of contemporary mainstream directors, his two queer films making up only a part of his range.5 And despite the enthusiastic receptions of Brokeback Mountain, Lee can hardly claim to enjoy a cult following among queer audiences. Moreover, his directing style shows no evidence of being influenced by queer theory. Lee is no Foucaultian auteur; rather, he is a literalist who favors the adaptation of literary fictions, and invariably he stays faithful to his source material. On top of this, Lee's approach to filmmaking is conspicuously unpostmodernist, being character-plot oriented rather than style-polemic oriented. Lee favors a traditional humanist and social-realist approach to storytelling, so much so that to describe him as a classical filmmaker would strike most people as apt.6

One way to summarize all this is to say that the typical Ang Lee film is very "straight"-used here to mean not so much heterosexual as straight/brword. …