Sunday, January 9, 2011

Strange Romance

Films: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Wedding Banquet
Format: VHS from DeKalb Public Library (Ghost), DVD from NetFlix (Wedding), both on big ol’ television.

First, apologies. The Internet crapped out on us last night, and I was unable to upload this post. Suffice to say that you can expect a second update late tonight. I hope.

What is the appeal of a romance picture? It’s hardly a sexist comment to suggest that romances are, in general, made for women. Yes, that’s a generalization, but I think it’s an accurate one. Many romances, both good and bad, involve presenting women with something completely unachievable in real life. Why else would the damn Twilight books and movies be so popular? Unachievable romance.

Perhaps no film accomplished this sort of romance as fully and completely as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. We start with a young widow named Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney), who has decided to get on with her life, something that widowed women in 1900 didn’t do. Her mother-in-law (Isobel Elsom) and spinster sister-in-law Eva (Victoria Horne) are desperately against her leaving, of course. The mother-in-law seems to disagree with the notion mostly so she won’t be alone; Eva because it would mean losing control of Lucy. Regardless, using her husband’s willed shares of a gold mine, Lucy and her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood, at least at this point in the film) move to a small seaside community.

Once there, Lucy rents a little cottage off by itself despite the fact that it’s been mainly empty for four years and appears to be haunted by the ghost of the sea captain who lived there until he allegedly killed himself. She rents the house anyway, and the captain, a youngish man named Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), manifests himself and tries to scare her off, but fails. She loves the house, and will keep it. They come to an arrangement of sorts—she’ll eventually will the house to become a home for old seamen, and he’ll not manifest to Anna and he’ll stay in his old room.

Almost immediately, Lucy loses her stipend—the gold mine has played out, but even without an income, she refuses to leave the house she has loved so much. As a way out of the financial pickle, Captain Gregg proposes to narrate his life story to her for her to turn into a book. He does, and the book is published and sells, in no small part because of the salty language. So at least the money thing is handled. It’s also at this time that he tells her to call him Daniel, and he decides to call her Lucia. With the book completed, Captain Gregg tells Lucy that she should spend time with living people, particularly with men, even though she doesn’t really want to. It’s evident at this point that the two of them are deeply in love with each other despite the small problem of him being, y’know, dead.

It’s at the publisher’s office that Lucy meets Miles Fairley (George Sanders), an author of children’s books and a man far more forward than most would dare to be. Seriously, when he talks to her, he looms over her. At one point, they share a cab ride, and he just about sits in her lap. Anyway, romance of a sort blossoms, and it’s evident that Captain Gregg disapproves. Despite this, he decides that Lucy must be allowed to attempt to find happiness on her own, and so he tells her in a fairly poignant scene that he will leave her in peace, and that she will remember him only as a dream, and that the dream will eventually fade. This happens, of course, and of course Fairley is a bastard who’s already married and has made a habit of pulling this trick on women in the past. I’ll stop here so as not to spoil the last 20 minutes or so of the film.

The film is, of course, insanely romantic in the truest sense, and not just in the smoochy-kissy way. It’s romantic in the doomed love, Romeo and Juliet, “I want the thing that I just can’t have” sense. That’s really the whole point of the film; she wants the ghost, the ghost wants her, and thus she becomes attracted to another man she can’t have. It’s not the eventual culmination of the relationship that’s important here. It’s not the time when they are together that’s important. The real romance is the ache when they are apart and the longing to be reunited.

That, friends and neighbors, is the romance part, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is chock filled to burstin’ with that.

So how is it? As romances go, it’s a shade too predictable, but many romance films are predictable, because the audience for these films wants that ache, that longing, and that desperate reach for a third hanky. The cast is quite good: Gene Tierney is lovely, which is exactly what she is supposed to be, and independent—ditto that. Rex Harrison was generally good in anything he touched, and he’s gruff, and salty, and a shade tender here, which works for the film more than it does for the character. My favorite character, and I suspect the favorite of most people who watch the film, is Martha (Edna Best), Lucy’s maid. She’s no-nonsense, funny, and gruff, and doesn’t hide her emotions or the fact that she spies a bit on her employer.

This is a tenderhearted film, one that’s nice for a snuggle on the couch with someone special. I won’t say that all women will like it, but fans of chick flicks undoubtedly will. As for the guys, sometimes you have to take one for the team. It might as well be one that’s easier going down than the romantic comedy pablum (or, God forbid, Twilight) currently being served up.

The Wedding Banquet (known in Taiwan as Hsi Yen or Xi Yan), rather than being about a love that can’t be, is about a love that isn’t. Actually, there’s a love that is here as well as a non-existent love. The Wedding Banquet is Ang Lee’s second film. In an interview, he described this film as a classic 1940s screwball comedy, except Chinese and gay. It’s a tremendous description. If the “gay” thing bothers you, you should stop reading now, because this film is gayer than Paul Lynde’s underpants.

We are introduced initially to Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chao) while he is working out. He is listening to a tape of his mother, who evidently sends tapes rather than letters (this was filmed in those dark days before the Internet and email became common) because of her arthritis. She wonders when her son will get married and help carry on the family name. We soon discover the reason why this hope is in vain—Wai-Tung has a lover named Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), and the two have shared a nice building for a number of years. Wai-Tung is a landlord, running a low-rent building in a much cheaper part of New York. Here we meet one of his tenants—Wei Wei (May Chin), an almost literally starving artist. She lives in a non-residential space in the building because it is all she can afford, and she can’t really afford it.

Wai-Tung goes to collect the rent from her, and we learn that she almost got caught by immigration, and her best friend was deported. Now, she has no work, no visa, no green card, and no way to stay. Wai-Tung is continually signed up for singles’ clubs by his parents, who want him to marry and produce grandchildren to carry on the family name. The solution, thought of by Simon, is obvious. If Wai-Tung and Wei Wei get married, everyone benefits. Wai-Tung gets his parents off his back (and a substantial married tax break) and Wei Wei gets a legitimate reason (kind of) to stay in the country. All seems fine until the announcement of the “wedding” brings Wai-Tung’s parents from Taiwan, for a two-week stay. They want to be there for the wedding ceremony. All of this is compounded by the recent stroke of Wai-Tung’s father and his survival, according to a woman he meets through the singles’ agency, because of his desire to hold a grandchild. And thus, we have the rest of the movie.

And yes, it is a comedy of errors. It’s funny and sweet, and a bit tender. Much of the film, really, isn’t so much about the comedic situation of the plot set up, but the relationship between Wai-Tung and his parents (Ya-lei Kuei as the very sweet Mrs. Gao and Sihung Lung as the traditional and cagey Mr. Gao). Of course, it can’t ever be even this simple, and when Wei Wei manages to seduce a drunken Wai-Tung and becomes pregnant, the situation becomes, well, serious.

I don’t want to be coy here, though. The situation here is very funny and the film moves on the gay/straight/fake marriage story arc completely and there would be no film without it. However, even at this early stage in his career, Lee was smart enough to realize that the movie is much more than the situation. In fact, while it is the situation that makes the plot, the reason the audience watches and the reason the audience cares about anything on the screen is the characters, not the story. There are movies with little plot but interesting characters that are worth watching. There are very few movies (at least in my opinion) with a great plot but lousy characters that are worth much of anything.

And so, the movie really does depend on the quality and depth of the characters, and what we have are real people. More importantly, we have real relationships between them. Wai-Tung has a genuine and believable relationship with his parents, one that many people have with their own. He loves and respects them and wants nothing more than to please them, but he also wants to be free to live his own life. He is desperate not for their love, attention, or affection. He has all three. He wants them to bless his life and his choices and to understand him for who he is. Essentially, he wants acceptance for himself, not for their idea of who they want him to be.

This is what makes the film worth watching, and what makes it accessible to anyone—even those of us in traditional marriages. We relate not to the situation, which is extreme, but to the struggles and the personalities of the people going through it. As with many of the most highly touted directors, Lee started strong, and only got stronger.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that much of the film is really funny, and that just as much is equally serious. The actual marriage ceremony is ridiculously silly, as is much of what follows, and the film is much more watchable because of it. When it does turn into a domestic drama, the change is both sudden and natural, but even here, the film doesn’t completely lose its light touch

Why to watch The Ghost and Mrs. Muir: A sweet romance that happily stretches the boundaries of reality.
Why not to watch: The risk of losing your girlfriend to a ghost.

Why to watch The Wedding Banquet: Real characters and real pathos, even if the situation is extraordinary.
Why not to watch: Homophobia.


  1. This review was some years back (the ghost...). How does the movie stand today? The more I think about it, the more I like it and it has only been a few days.

    1. It's sweet. I'd watch it again if my wife wanted to see it, but I'm not pressing her to watch it with me.