(Dir: Henry Koster, 1961, U.S. Released by Arrow Films): As the world recovers from the Beijing Olympic Games and all the controversies that it generated, the DVD market continues to ride Chinamania. Fans of vintage cinema will be well catered for with the release of Flower Drum Song (1961), Henry Koster’s film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway 1958 hit that lured audiences with its East-West culture gap and marital customs subject matter.
The stage version was the first Broadway production to feature a mostly Asian cast and ran for 600 performances. It received a 2002 revival but didn’t attract the same critical acclaim as the original. The musical was conceived during a period of low creative output for Rodgers and he referred to it as an ‘accidental hit’. Granted, it’s not his best score but it’s not bad either – and most importantly, it’s not intrusive. The film version is alternately visually lush and dramatically weak, as tidy as a properly ironed shirt. In fact, there is a comforting appeal in its controlled ambiance, which is probably true of most studio-bound, artificial-looking films.
Based on the homonymous novel by C. Y. Lee, Flower Drum Song offers a retroactive glimpse of the transition period between the 1950s and 1960s and gives audiences an idea of Asian-American culture, one split between assimilation and loyalty to the ways of the ancestral land. The film contrasts all-American second generation behaviour with the attitude of newly-arrived peasant immigrants (and their more traditional values) and the elderly, who stick to their cultural roots even when they are comfortably settled in the New World.
All these issues hinge on a very simple, pleasantly told storyline. Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki), a picture bride from the old land, arrives illegally in San Francisco to meet her husband-to-be, a cartoonish club owner called Jack Soo. As it happens, Soo is already romantically involved with the sexy main attraction of his show house, the sexy Linda Low (Nancy Kwan). Soo finds shelter for Mei Li and her wise, old father in the household of an affluent family whose matriarch and patriarch see in the polite, traditional girl perfect wife material for their philandering, Westernised son. Mei li thinks so too. But will fate bring these two disparate characters together despite all the obvious incompatibilities?
Mei Li, the charming heroine of the film, is cut out of one of the stock Asian screen characters, the submissive female, but the humourous and self-parodying tone of the material simultaneously reinforces and satirises stereotypes. The same applies to the sexualised Linda Low, who, like most American femme fatales, harbours a closeted housewife underneath the vampy exterior. As to the men, the Americanised Chinese are sexy and seductive while the traditional elderly are shown in a slightly cranky if endearing light.
Sociological considerations aside, Flower Drum Song really delivers the goods during two particular sequences: a marine dance number with motioning waves in the background and a very bizarre visualisation of domestic bliss that owes nothing to the Jetsons. These are the moments that makes you crave for a period when cinema could play out this type of fantasy without the weight of irony. With lots of eye candy on offer, the bland plot is more than compensated for.
Flower Drum Song is released on DVD today. Please follow links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.