Saturday, July 26, 2008

Flower Drum Song

Flower Drum Song
USA, 1961, 133 minutes
Directed by Henry Koster
Songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein
Cast: Nancy Kwan (Linda Low), James Shigeta (Wang Ta), Benson Fong (Wang Chi-Yang), Jack Soo ("Sammy" Fong), Juanita Hall (Madame 'Auntie' Liang), Reiko Sato (Helen Chao), Miyoshi Umeki (Mei Li)

I wanted to love this film because it was the first musical with an all-Asian cast specifically aimed at an Asian audience. Never mind that the story, based on a novel by Chinese-American author C.Y. Lee, had a number of Japanese actors portraying Chinese characters - that's because there was a limited pool of Asian or Asian-American actors to choose from in Hollywood, and it still beat seeing Caucasian actors like Boris Karloff (Fu Manchu), Peter Lorre (Mr. Moto) or Myrna Loy portray Asians. But the bottom line is, the songs are pedestrian - "Grant Avenue" is the only halfway decent song - and despite its Asian affiliations, it was still written by white men, lending it an inescapable sense of appropriation and inauthenticity. In other words, even with its Asian source material and cast, it ends up stereoyping. In terms of examining Chinese-American identity, it's a long way from Flower Drum Song to Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing (1982) - the latter film featuring the superior Pat Suzuki version of "Grant Avenue," by the way. (Suzuki had starred as Linda Low in the 1958 Broadway version of Flower Drum Song before getting passed over in favor of Nancy Kwan for the film adaptation - in which Kwan's voice was dubbed by singer B. J. Baker.)

Still, you get the beautiful Nancy Kwan, fresh off her starring role opposite William Holden in Richard Quine's The World of Suzy Wong (1960) in the first role that put her dancing background (she studied dance with England's Royal Ballet) to use. Unfortunately, she suffered the fate of many ethnic minorities in Hollywood - scarce opportunities for A-list quality roles. That said, Kwan's jiggly-wiggly high heels-and-bath towel dance number "I Enjoy Being A Girl" in front of a dressing mirror remains one of the visual highlights (schwing!) of FDS.

Nancy Kwan enjoys being a girl

And you get Jack Soo (Goro Suzuki, pictured right), the sleepy-eyed character actor best known for his later role as Detective Sgt. Nick Yemana on the 1970s TV sitcom Barney Miller (Soo has the film's best line when, after he flip-flops on his marriage proposal to Nancy Kwan to become engaged to another woman, he tells Kwan, "Baby, nothing's changed." When Kwan responds, "You're getting married to another woman!," he responds "That's the only thing!") Jack Soo got his big break in Flower Drum Song after he was spotted working as an MC at San Francisco's famous Chinese-themed Forbidden City nightclub, which served as the model for the film's Celestial Gardens nightclub. Forbidden City has been called the Asian-American version of Harlem's Cotton Club.

Forbidden City: The Asian Cotton Club

Unfortunately, you also get Academy Award-winning Japanese star Miyoshi Umeki (Best Supporting Actress for 1957's Sayanora) starring in a role that propagates the stereotype of the meek, humble and subservient Asian female, a role she would continue to play as housekeeper Mrs. Livingston in American television's The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969-1972).

Personally, my favorite actress in Flower Drum Song was Reiko Sato as hard-luck "other woman" Helen Chao, the seamtress who secretly pines for male lead James Shigeta (who barely notices her) and gets to sing and dance the surreal, beautifully choreographed "Love Look Away."

Always the Bridesmaid's Seamtress, Never the Bride:
Love looks away from Reiko Sato

And yes, as her name suggests, Sato was yet another Japanese actor playing a Chinese character in Flower Drum Song! Though she later appeared in Marlon Brando's The Ugly American (1963) and had an uncredited appearance (as "Charlie's girl") in Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo (1955), Sato was best known for her roles in Space Giant (Supa Jaiantsu, aka Starman), the Japanese sci-fi film series starring Ken Utsui.

Supa Jaiantsu (aka Super Giant, Starman)

In addition to appearing alongside Brando in The Ugly American, Sato enjoyed a close relationship with the enigmatic American star; though they never married, they were together for 20 years and following her death in 1981, her cremated remains were "spirited away" to Brando's private island.

Flower Drum Song was revived on Broadway in 2002 with a new script by socially conscious playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly).

Related Links:
Flower Drum Song (Wikipedia)
Forbidden City (Media Maxi-Pad review)

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