I finally watched FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961) on dvd. I felt inspired to sing and dance right along with some of the songs in the first half to two thirds of the film; it was that fun and dynamic. I appreciated the brief bit of queer gender bending by Filipino actor Patrick Adiarte, who plays the adorable teenaged younger brother (Wang San) of the leading man Wang Ta (James Shigeta). This seemed very daring for a big Hollywood production in 1961.
There were some moments of cringe-worthy datedness that inevitably flawed the film. But, the sets were lushly colorful, the score lovely, and the dancing crisp and joyful.
Nancy Kwan, who deservedly has top billing, was fabulously beautiful in every way, playing an Americanized young Chinese night club singer and dancer. She seemed to have the most fun in the movie, with her single song (“I Enjoy Being a Girl”) and dance number in front of three full length mirrors being the biggest highlight of the show, and there were a handful of highlights. She was also terrific in a dance scene more towards the end of the movie, where she does something particularly creative with folding fans over her breasts. I thought, “You go, girl!” I could relate to her in these particular moments of fabulosity. Celebrating oneself is good to do.
I found leading man James Shigeta dashing and charismatic. I did not believe in his romantic choice, however, which came across as undeveloped and pat. For me, there was a seemingly better fit between he and another woman in the story which went nowhere, sadly. I would have liked some better closure for her character.
I watched all five or so of the “extras” commentary segments, which were informative and interesting. However, people interviewed in them repeatedly, inaccurately referred to the movie’s “all Asian” cast. Well, all Asian except for a pretty important supporting member, Juanita Hall, who was African American but playing a Chinese woman. She was wonderful, but I can only imagine her being cast contributed to the controversy about the non-Chinese casting choices, which mainly centered on having Japanese actors play some of the parts. The commentators did not discuss this controversy, other than in a sweeping, positive way, emphasizing how the movie was such a great opportunity for Asian performers, which it was, yes, but limiting and still not enough, of course, to sufficiently help erode racism in Hollywood, let alone America. Understandably, Chinese, Japanese, and Black people do not appreciate being conflated or seen as interchangeable. In the voiceover movie commentary, Nancy Kwan, herself half Chinese and half British, did not discuss this issue either and she glossed over Ms. Hall’s being cast as a Chinese person.
In 2002, there was a very much updated Broadway revival of this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, written by the Tony winning, Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang. I wonder if a video recording of it exists to view? I take some comfort in knowing that this production was revamped for the early 21st century, with an intention, I imagine, of being reclaimed by the very community the show is meant to represent.