The APAHM Project Day 29: Flower Drum Song
Film: Flower Drum Song
Director: Henry Koster
Where to watch: Vudu, free with ads
Why it made the list:
I first heard of “Flower Drum Song” after reading an article about the film prior to the release of “Crazy Rich Asians” (Side note, did you know the author of the book, Kevin Kwan, is a relative of FDS actress Nancy Kwan?). It seemed that when promoting CRA, everyone focused on “The Joy Luck Club.” But they never mentioned “Flower Drum Song.” Excited to see an older film starring an almost all Asian cast, I searched for the film for a few months. I would have forgotten to consider it for this list if it weren’t for my middle school art teacher suggesting it on my Facebook post (the same teacher who got me interested in a career in animation).
Firstly, I had no idea this movie was a full on musical, but I did know it was based on a Broadway play so not really sure where my mind was. The songs are not particularly catchy and a couple of actors’ singing was dubbed. However, each of the musical sequences was entertaining, featuring colorful sets, fun props, and lots of drama. My favorite was by far ”Love, Look Away.” The costumes and set were really beautiful as was the dancing.
The film was one of those romantic movies you would expect from the 1960s. It had love confessions after a total of 10 minutes of interaction that makes you question if that kind of love is real and if it is, if you’ll ever experience it for yourself. There are a few love triangles and some back and forth between who loves whom. There are dramatic kisses and unrequited love.
The most interesting theme, I think, is that of the older generation and the new. We see Master Wang’s perspective as an immigrant, his sons’ (Ta and San) perspective as American-Born Chinese, and Madam Liang’s (his sister-in-law) perspective as an immigrant who finally earns her US Citizenship by taking years of classes. The latter compares her mixture of American and Chinese culture as Chop Suey (prompting another musical number of the same name). I think Liang’s comparison is the most accurate. My mother and her family immigrated to the US at a young age but she and her brothers still hold on to Chinese traditions while also adopting American ones. However Wang wants little to do with American culture; he knows none of the American slang his sons use and insists on Ta having an arranged marriage. Ta and San are very engrossed in American culture; San plays baseball (the all-American sport) and uses American jargon while Ta wants to marry for love.
The aforementioned article describes why this theme is particularly problematic, noting that the characters either want to be 100% Chinese or 100% American. But I think the character of Liang serves as an essential bridge between the two. She helps Wang and Ta come to meet in the middle.
Does it deserve to stay on this list?
This film was revolutionary for its casting, especially for the 1960s. Although not all the actors were ethnically Chinese (Kwan is half Chinese and many others are Japanese), it’s again something we can’t really raise complaints about. Think of the films at the time that were practicing yellow face (I’m looking at you, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” which came out the same year). However, because most of the known Asian actors were filming FDS, it forced some actors to dress in yellow face for other productions. Madam Liang is actually played by an African American/Irish woman who portrayed the character on Broadway. I think this film, for it’s time, was a success. Does it have some social problems? Sure. Was it a classic in the way some other older films are? Maybe not. But it was entertaining and had its funny moments. I’m curious to see if a remake would ever happen, one that addresses some of the issues that the article addresses such as how the film is more from the perspective of a tourist than a Chinese person living in Chinatown and the topic of assimilation.