||Adapted from C.Y. Lee’s 1957 novel and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s subsequent Broadway play, Flower Drum Song ranks as the first Hollywood film to feature a mostly Asian American cast. Set against the backdrop of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the film centers on the clash between the conservative mores of the older generation and the free-wheeling ways of the new. Amidst this conflict a pair of mismatched couples attempt to find love, American style. Do the parents know best? Or the children? This age-old battle will play out – set to the appropriate music, of course.
The film kicks off with Dr. Li (Kam Tong) and his daughter Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) illegally entering the country to meet her supposed future husband Sammy Fong (Jack Soo), a Dean Martinesque nightclub owner with designs on his star performer Linda Low (Nancy Kwan). In contrast to the meek and mild Mei Li, Linda Low is assertive, strong-willed and sex personified. Apparently, Sammy and Linda have been seeing each other on the side prior to Mei Li’s arrival, but commitment issues on his part have driven Linda into the arms of Wang Ta (James Shigeta), a handsome college boy who lives with his well-to-do family in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Unbeknownst to Wang Ta, Sammy has successfully pawned off his picture bride to Ta’s father, Master Wang (Benson Fong), who views Mei Li as the perfect mate for his headstrong, Chinese American son. If these various love misconnections weren’t enough, the film throws in a fifth character to spice things up – Linda’s seamstress and Ta’s long-suffering childhood friend Helen Chow (Reiko Sato), who has for many years been secretly carrying a torch for Wang Ta. As one might expect, more misunderstandings than your average episode of Three’s Company ensue and accrue, until the whole shebang gets resolved with – what else? – a spontaneous group sing-a-long. Such is the logic of musicals.
While the American songwriting duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein can claim responsibility for such classic musicals as The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, and The King and I, the music they composed for Flower Drum Song is not nearly as good, although there are some diamonds in the rough to be had. Nancy Kwan’s dancing to her voice double B.J. Parker’s rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl” in front of a three-way mirror is a real treat, as is Jack Soo’s comical crooning on the very funny tune “Don’t Marry Me.” But they’re not all wonderful: the group song “Chop Suey” sounds as uninspired as it is grating on the ears, and Miyoshi Umeki’s warbling on “A Hundred Million Miracles” may slowly drive you insane. Even so, the tune “Grant Avenue” amounts to a real show-stopper as performed by Nancy Kwan and B.J. Parker midway through the film.
From a modern standpoint, the overly formalized English spoken by Master Wang and Madame Liang (Juanita Hall) is both irritating and phony to our ears, but the film tries to use this artifice as a means to distinguish them from the slang spoken by the youngsters, and thus capture on celluloid the same kind of generational divide that would be prevalent in early writings of Asian American literature. There’s a lot going on in terms of tricky gender politics; the film squarely places the virginal Mei Li against the rebellious Linda Low, reducing women to the category of either Madonna or whore. If you’re not one or the other then you’re resigned to the fate of poor women like Helen Chow, who’s left out in the cold, unwanted by any of the male leads and quickly forgotten by the film itself.
If there’s anything truly bothersome about Flower Drum Song, it’s the fact that none of the characters seem to learn anything about themselves or each other, but get rewarded anyway. Linda Low is portrayed as a real operator, trying to use Wang Ta both for his money and to make Sammy jealous. By the same token, Wang Ta, although charmingly played by James Shigeta, amounts to an immensely selfish character, as he a) summarily drops Linda as soon as his father learns of her nightclub routine, b) toys with Helen’s obvious affections, and c) assumes he can easily pick up the pieces with a distraught Mei Li through a less than convincing ballad. Certainly, everything is forgiven on all sides by the time the finale rolls around, but these moments make the film’s ending come across as rushed and unearned.
Certainly, Mei Li is meant to be our likeable leading lady, but she’s too much of a mistreated goody-goody to garner anything more than sympathy from the audience. Of the four, Jack Soo’s Sammy Fong comes off the best – a man looking at every angle, but somehow honest about his dishonesty. Jack Soo delivers a game performance as this oddly likable rascal. The film culminates with a comedy ending of Shakespearean proportions, although I’m betting the only one in film history that relies on one of the strangest non sequitors imaginable – a malapropism involving the epithet, “wetback.”
While boasting some hum-worthy tunes and a lot of impressive dancing by Patrick Adiarte (as Wang Ta’s brother) and Nancy Kwan, Flower Drum Song can be, at times, culturally problematic in its tour guide approach to Chinese American culture. Still, the film ranks as one of only two successful attempts to feature a largely Asian American cast in a major Hollywood production – the other being Wayne Wang’s 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Beyond its cultural importance and historical insight, the film still proves well-worth seeing purely as a musical romp. After taking in a viewing, don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing “Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.!” Whatever its faults, Flower Drum Song is a guilty pleasure with an odd charm all its own. (Calvin McMillin 2011)