Sunday, March 2, 2008

Flower Drum Song

Annoying theme songs aside (how long did I have "A hundred million miracles" stuck in my head?), I enjoyed Flower Drum Song, much more than I expected to. Not that I'm normally a big fan of musicals (not that this was a particularly outstanding one from that perspective), and not that the film presented any groundbreaking new ideas. So why did I have such a positive reaction to the film? One line of my notes is particularly telling: "Asians without accents!!!" 

Is it really that easy? If an Asian that doesn't talk all funny is all it takes to get me hooked, then my standards must have sunk pretty low. No, I think it's more than that. Seeing an Asian-American cast that succeeds in acting, singing, and dancing seems to prove that we could have done it all along, if only white Hollywood would let us. Of course, there is also spectator identification, the idea of my Asian-American experience being reflected back to me; in Wang Ta's speech about "the Oriental half" and "the American half", in Wang San's difficulty in communicating with his father, in the conflict between old Asian traditions and new American ones (the terms "old" and "new" open, of course, for discussion). It's also the reversals of familiar stereotypes, such as when Master Wang says that all white people look alike. The Asian-American audience perhaps take this as a nod from Hollywood, a recognition of what we've had to deal with all these years.

Really, it's not much more than a nod, because Flower Drum Song is just as problematic as the next movie, perhaps even more so because the problems are less visible. Though Wang Ta seems to ride that hyphen gracefully, the film is sorely lacking in strong female characters. Instead, the Asian female is presented in two extremes: the glamorous, exotic, dragon lady who's manipulative and obsessed with her own sexuality; or the naive, submissive china doll who's so weak she allows men to stand her up on a stool and examine her mouth.

I found it interesting that both Master Wang and San, the younger son, were both sources of comic relief, one because he refused to assimilate, the other because he tries to assimilate more completely than he possibly can. Flower Drum Song is another example of a supposedly radical Asian-American work that nevertheless continues to draw on the foreigner as a source of comedy (Margaret Cho's impression of her mother comes to mind).

Although what does assimilation within the world of Flower Drum Song really mean? After all, the only white people in the film are a few extras at the restaurant. The policeman, the principal of the citizenship school, the bank teller, Ta's friends, and all of the waiters at Celestial Gardens are Asian or Asian-American. How does one measure assimilation/foreignness when everyone looks foreign and even those "fresh off the boat" speak grammatically perfect English? To me, the absence of white characters suggests that anything groundbreaking about the film can only exist in an alternate, all-Asian universe (then again, I don't know whether this is in fact just an accurate representation of life in San Francisco's Chinatown). It would have been interesting to see how certain interactions in the film would have changed if the story of Mei Li and the Wang family had played out against a white majority background.

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