It’s Chinatown

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After watching THE WILD AFFAIR, in which Nancy Kwan is delightful, Fiona wanted more, so we ran THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (some nice elaborate Richard Quine long takes) and then FLOWER DRUM SONG.

FLOWER DRUM SONG is an interesting period piece — some of the DVD extras consider the ways in which the passage of time has changed it from a rather forward-thinking piece, in the days when the very act of making a musical about Chinese-Americans was a radical and positive thing, to a slightly embarrassing hangover from an earlier age. But nobody quite gets to the nub of it, I think.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical is entertaining and funny, and pleasingly presents its Chinese and Chinese-Americans as being just regular folks, with a few different customs but with all the same drives and qualities as anyone you might meet in a movie about white folks, which is fine. It’s just that a lot of the jokes are based around producing Asian versions of conventional situations or dialogue — so someone talks of being “left with egg foo yung on his face,” which isn’t a real expression, just a silly version of an American expression with a bit of cod Chinese culture tacked on as a laugh. It might or might be amusing, but it’s certainly inauthentic, and there’s a point at which the inauthentic becomes slightly racist.

Any time you can’t be bothered to get the details right, you’re showing a lack of respect. In Fellini’s CITY OF WOMEN, we are told that all the feminist statements are based on actual proclamations by feminist thinkers. If this is true (always highly doubtful with Fellini) then the filmmaker would be showing a kind of respect to the people he is satirising — he lets them condemn themselves as absurd out of their own mouths. He plays fair. But in HORSE FEATHERS, not only is Groucho’s anatomy class complete gibberish, the serious class he interrupts is equally nonsensical, basically just a stream of long words most of which have nothing to do with the ostensible subject. In this way, the writers show themselves to be above the subject, disinterested in accuracy, and ally themselves with the Marxes’ anti-intellectual side (Harpo is seen gleefully shoveling books into a roaring fire, in hindsight a disturbing image for 1933).

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The racism in FLOWER DRUM SONG is super-mild, it doesn’t mean to offend, and it doesn’t even mean to be disrespectful. It’s just levity, but not quite the right kind for us today. I’m not even sure if it would offend anyone, but it does embarrass.

Still, there are great pleasures, some of them quite odd. Kwan is a knockout, and though she couldn’t do her own singing. she could certainly dance. James Shigeta has a fine speaking voice and he does seem to be doing his own vocals, but he evidently couldn’t dance to save his life, so he’s doubled in the big dream ballet number. For part of this he wears what looks to me like a Japanese mask (the film also blurs Chinese and Japanese cultures and casting), but for part of it he’s just blatantly replaced by another performer. The shot is head-to-toe wide to show the dancing properly, but it’s not like you can’t notice it’s not him anymore: the new guy doesn’t look anything like Shigeta. Sometimes, when faced with a continuity problem with a plant pot or cigarette or glass of wine, a director will say, “Well, if the audience is looking at THAT, we’ve lost them anyway.” But you can’t use that argument when the continuity problem consists of your leading man being suddenly replaced by someone else. When Balthazar Getty replaces Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY, we’re supposed to notice. One does hope that Henry Koster, the director in this instance, was not trusting to the old dictum that “they all look alike.”

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At one point in the film, a Chinese character actually says, “They all look alike,” referring to white folks, which I guess is intended as a kind of satire, but is actually sort of true — we often find it harder to tell apart people of different races from themselves, since what we notice first are the “racial signifiers” of the other. The problem is solved by spending time around people of different races.

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It’s not a problem one could ever have with Jack Soo (a Japanese-American who changed his name to a Chinese one in order to get a role in the Broadway production), though. He’s incredibly distinctive, though, and a lovely presence — he talks like Robert Mitchum, only even more hep, and looks like Brundlefly. I wish he was in more movies.

 

 

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13 Responses to “It’s Chinatown”

  1. Jack Lechner Says:

    To be fair, replacing the lead with a dance double was a convention in some mid-century musicals, dating back at least to “Dream Curly” in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! Meanwhile, Jack Soo is best known in the US as Nick Yemana in the long-running (and very funny) sitcom BARNEY MILLER.

  2. The dream substitution in Oklahoma! is very overt, and they make a thing of it and we accept it because the filmmaker clearly knows that we know. This one felt awkward because it seemed like Koster was trying to, you know, get away with it. He keeps it in longshot — which is appropriate for dance — but I think you probably need a closer view and a transformation moment. This is more like an unconvincing stunt double.

  3. Jack Soo is also in the cartoonishly racist Thoroughly Modern Mille as one of Beatrice Lilli’s henchmen, who kidnap girls into “white slavery.” There’s an amazing scene of these girls in bamboo cages — right out the first version of The Letter.

    I believe I’ve mentioned it previously, but in case I haven’t Nancy Kwan was Richard Nixon’s favorite actress-cum-sex-fantasy. I have little doubt the expansion of the Vietnam war into Laos and Cambodia he engineered was done in order to impress Nancy Kwan.

  4. I kind of doubt she appreciated the gesture.

    Via Facebook, Simon Kane says “So it’s like the opening of Howard the Duck, but with Chinese people instead of ducks?”

  5. “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is a weird one. On the one hand, it’s supposed to be this happy innocent romp. On the other, a big plot element is screaming, sobbing young girls being shipped off to foreign brothels. In the end the remaining ones are more or less saved, running off into “Chinatown” streets in lingerie never to be mentioned again. A more aware film would find a way to assure us ALL the kidnapped girls were saved, perhaps even allowing them to inflict some slapstick come-uppance (a standard feature of kid films).

    It’s like comic thrillers that kill off characters who are just a little too real and innocent — especially when the hero seems cool with it. Or “Mad Mad Mad Mad World”, where various harmless incidental characters — two gas station owners; a black couple with their worldly goods on an open truck — lose everything to the humorous mayhem of passing-through stars.

    The musical “Little Shop of Horrors” ends on stage with the monster plant devouring the hero and heroine; it works as comedy. The movie shot that ending and capped it with a letter-perfect 50s sci-fi apocalypse; it bombed in previews. What was funny and foolproof onstagewas alienating on film.

    As it turned out, Jack Soo and his fellow sinister henchman Pat Morita both had better parts and solid careers in from of them. You wonder if, at that moment, they had any optimism on that score.

  6. For those of us exposed to American ’70s television, Jack Soo will always be the rumpled, deadpan Nick Yemana in the cop comedy Barney Miller. Good show (incidentally, it’s hard to believe Abe Vigoda is still alive, as he looked at death’s door throughout the series, which ran from 1975 to 1979).

  7. I don’t know if it’s my favorite of Soo’s Yemana lines on Barney Miller (it’s been a loooong time since I saw the show as a teenager), but the one I remember best was when he was confronted with a recent immigrant who was rhapsodizing over seeing the Statue Of Liberty, he deadpanned “My parents felt the same way when they saw Alcatraz”.

    I did see a lot of Soo and Shigeta guesting on ’70s American TV shows.

  8. I only know Barney Miller by name. The creator, Theodore J Flicker, just died. I’m a huge fan of The Presiden’s Analyst and should make a point of seeing some of the show.

    I’ve never seen all of Thoroughly Modern Millie but the bits I caught certainly were weird.

  9. Nixon’s penchant for Nancy Kwan inspires images of him screening The Wrecking Crew in the Oval Office during Watergate. If it didn’t happen it should have…

  10. So who did George W Bush have a yen for, Omar Sharif?

  11. chris schneider Says:

    Let me expand on Jack Lechner’s point — and I am, basically, in accord with him. The replacing of a character by a dance double in a “dream ballet” is an R&H tradition that reaches back to the Agnes DeMille ballet in OKLAHOMA! The number in FLOWER DRUM SONG is, I believe, a conscious attempt to continue that tradition. In the “Out of My Dreams” ballet in OKLAHMOMA! both singing leads are replaced by dancers. Both there and here, I believe it’s a “doppelganger” gesture … a demonstration of “dream time” wherein Person A becomes Person B.

    On a more prosaic level … James Shigata had a recording career apart from the FLOWER DRUM SONG movie, so I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume that that’s his voice we hear in the movie.

  12. chris schneider Says:

    {Note to proofreader: that should read “Shigeta” and “is a conscious attempt.” ARGHH!]

  13. It’s certainly a distinctive timbre and the singing sounds just like him.
    My point is really that in OKLAHOMA! Zinnemann makes something out of the dream-substitution and it works, and we cannot be in any doubt that it’s a deliberate choice, but in FDS it’s thrown away so quickly that it feels like the director is trying to pull a fast one, even if he isn’t. The fact that Shigeta is doubled by another guy for a few seconds, and then replaced by a guy in a mask, also feels messy.

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