Sunday, February 24, 2008

To Juanita Hall, Thanks for a Great Performance: A Response to Flower Drum Song

Before I begin to critique the Rogers & Hammerstein musical (for the record, I hate this movie), let me praise the film for featuring an all Asian American cast (Hi, Juanita Hall. What did you say? Really? So you’re not Asian American? Sorry about that). Jokes aside (because really, Juanita Hall was really fantastic as the aunt, Madame Liang), such casting is hardly ever seen today whether in film, theater, or television (Sorry Margaret Cho about your show…). I also want to point out that the lack of Asian Americans in mainstream culture is not limited to entertainment but also subjects that are supposed to be factual. For example, I was watching Anatomy of Sex on the Discovery Channel and besides being heteronormative, the only Asian/Asian American that appeared was the waiter in the Chinese restaurant (for about 3 seconds). With this example in mind, Flower Drum Song in its casting was pushing the cultural norms. This cannot be underplayed (especially when compared to, say, the other Rogers & Hammerstein “Asian” movies, South Pacific & Pacific Overture). Furthermore, things could be worse…we could have seen a performance of Miss Saigon.

Now, let me say that I have not experienced such cognitive dissonance than while watching Flower Drum Song. Firstly, who was the protagonist of the movie? Mei Li? Linda Low? Plot Device, er, I mean Helen? Wang Ta? His Venerable, Honorable Father/Madame Liang’s Brother-in Law? What I am trying to say is that women in the film are used as vehicles to examine (read: shove down our throats) assimilation. Perhaps Laura Hyun-Yi Kang’s “The Desiring of Asian Female Bodies: Interracial Romance and Cinematic Subjection” could be expanded to show that not only does the white male go through a transformation while pushing racial/gender/class issues raised but not examined to the background but that the female body is also used to propagandize a certain kind of assimilation: American dressed in Chinese clothing. For example, the New Year celebrated in Chinatown was ambiguous. They may have been dressed in clothing resembling Chinese clothing but the use of “Stars and Stripes Forever” was disorienting. And wasn’t March King John Philip Sousa of Portuguese descent? As a quick side note, I did enjoy the scene between Mei’s father and Ta’s father that alongside the eagle, women’s breasts are an American Icon. Furthermore, the dance numbers are degrading not just for their Asian stereotypes (“Fan Tan Fannie”) but that they are distinctly trying to shape what a woman is supposed to be and to a certain extent denying any other possibilities (“I Enjoy Being a Girl”). (Hi Sarah Jessica Parker. No, I would not like to buy whatever you're hacking from the Gap. No, I mean. For real. I'm going to close the door now...)Is all a woman can do is look pretty and get married? I know the film takes place in the fifties but really? Another example is the way that American slang was used to highlight how assimilated the children are. Does there have to be a choice to be either Chinese or American? Note Wang Ta’s conversation with Linda Low on their first date. He says his father is Chinese but his brother is American. And can we discuss the song “Chop Suey”?

Additionally, despite insinuating that the Flower Drum Song is an ancient Chinese song and dance, the music for “A Hundred Million Miracles” was clearly not Asian, not even a little chinoiserie. And while on the subject of Mei Li, she embodies every characteristic of the Lotus Blossom stereotype.

I am, however, aware that this film is an adaptation of the Broadway adaptation of the novel. In all honesty, I think something got lost in translation.

Lastly, I would like to point out some of the film’s failures as a movie-musical. It is far too long (at 2 hr. 11 min) and some of the dance numbers (that really strange dance sequence) was unnecessary.

Before I end my response, I also want to say that I wished that film had taken everything to an extreme as to go over the edge and become satire. It seemed that as over-the-top as the movie was, it seemed to be begging to be taken to that next level. In that respect, I was going to do my response from Mei Li's point of view, but I decided a more direct and flippant critique would better serve my purpose.

-Christopher Huynh

P.S. Did anyone else find the reference to Connie Chung in Kang's essay on page 78 funny?
Also for your consideration:

1 comment:

Lucy Lou said...

I, for one, love scathing commentary. Especially the truthful ones.

Thanks for bringing up the assimilation issue and highlighting the pretty BIG misses of the film... I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one with indigestion from the two pounds of horseshoes and however many dozens of thousand year old eggs...