Monday, February 25, 2008

Flower Drum Song is not really about women

Okay, the last thing I expected to ever see was Chinese square-dancing... musicals are truly another dimension of reality. But that's not what I wanted to talk about.

Let's get to the girls.

The main women in the film were Mei Li, Linda Low, Madam Liang and Helen Chao. I'm frankly tired of talking about the China doll / dragon lady dichotomy... and I haven't even talked about it. I don't even think this film is really that much about the women. Perhaps I've just read one too many feminist film critique, but the women in the film all seem to be projections of the male characters' different beliefs about assimilation (and also objectified subjects of the male gaze... which is a whole other topic of discussion). We've got Mei Li, who represents a successful process of assimilating from pure Chinese to someone who can full-heartedly receive advice from American TV. Then there is Linda Low, who is the bold, exciting, and assimilated to the point of being more American than Chinese (I mean, she had to fake being more Chinese towards Wang Ta to gain his trust). Madam Liang is the optimistic immigrant looking for that "Chinese apple pie" assimilation style (all the good and none of the bad), and Helen is the Chinese-American who is still a little too Chinese in her attitude and behavior (she doesn't even have the guts to tell the man she loves about her feelings in the end).

The main conflict is between the American-born Chinese and the older immigrant generation, which is mainly represented by Wang Ta and Master Wang's constant bickering (and later, Sammy Fong's hopeless situation with his mother... I mean, good grief!). The women are all kind of just swept along in this "to assimilate or not to assimilate" debate (Point: not assimilating makes you lost and confused, like the Li's. Counterpoint: assimilation is bad, just look at Linda Low! Point: but Madam Liang is doing a fine job of assimilating and still being Chinese. Counterpoint: well, Helen is pretty bicultural, but she's still pretty miserable). The debate is finally ended when Mei Li---represented as the most traditionally Chinese character---chooses to let go of her traditional beliefs (her father was miles before her, which surprised me) and starts on the road to assimilation (by accepting advice from that ever-present culture-box: the television).

So the moral of the story is: assimilation is good, whoop-de-doo! Of course, we all probably beg to differ in our enlightened present.

Also, I just had to look up some of the actors on IMDB: Nancy Kwan, who played Linda Low (she did not look Asian at all to me for much of the movie), turns out to be pretty active in the Asian-American community and is pretty much NOTHING like her character in Flower Drum Song (she was born in Hong Kong and lived there pretty extensively, and was originally QUITE modest and against being scantily clad on the big screen... She's also a hot old lady. I hope I age that well). Most of the other main roles went to Japanese-American actors (Mei Li, Wang Ta, Sammy Fong, Helen Chao... played by Miyoshi Umeki, James Shigeta, Jack Soo AKA Goro Suzuki, and Reiko Sato, respectively), which explains Mei Li's funny accent. And as someone else has already pointed out, Madam Liang was played by Juanita Hall, a light-skinned black actress.

1 comment:

Vijou Bryant said...

I agree with you to some extent that this film is not really about women. I also think that women in the film are poised to aid in the narrative around assimilation, (anti) immigration, and are subjects of the male gaze.

I don't think the women in the film have a sense of agency. Actually, in my opinion, women lack a sense of agency and voice. There futures, happiness, and lives are dependent on heterosexual relations (marriage!) with men.

Males really take center stage in this film.