Archive for Nancy Kwan

It’s Chinatown

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2014 by dcairns

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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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Wrath of Kwan

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2014 by dcairns

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THE WILD AFFAIR is based on a novel by William Sansom — he wrote some good spook stories collected in some of the paperback anthologies I own — and is a pre-Swinging London sex comedy starring Nancy Kwan. Interestingly, Miss Kwan’s parents are played by a couple of white folks, including the Personality Kid herself, Bessie Love (by 1963 a British resident, accounting for her rather psychotronic credits) with no explanation for her racial difference, which is kind of nice. Of course, Kwan was a bit of a catch at that time. The only thing that would have been even nicer would be if they had found a couple of Anglo-Chinese actors — I’m certain they did exist.

Coming right before director John Krish made the micro-budget misogynist sci-fi UNEARTHLY STRANGER, this movie has gratifyingly more complex and less icky sexual politics, though we’re not quite out of the danger zone. Kwan, as Marjory,  is leaving her secretarial job at a perfume company to marry, but her alter-ego in the mirror, Sandra, thinks she should lose her virginity first, and the office Christmas party seems an ideal opportunity.

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The scenario seems to pose questions about whether monogamy and chastity are important for the modern young woman, but the movie slants things towards a conservative answer by making Marjory engaged, so that she’d be cheating, and by surrounding her with male clowns, so that the mere idea of sex is kind of icky. Jimmy Logan, the comedy Scotsman, is about the most seductive fellow on offer (he does downplay his trademark gurning but he’s hardly Sean Connery), Victor Spinetti is just impossible, and Terry-Thomas as Kwan’s lecherous boss is quite unappealing when he’s trying to worm his fingertips under her Mary Quant collar. The whole British sex comedy genre was based around desperate, craven, sex-starved men not getting any, an amusing conceit which started to disintegrate with the permissive age, when the possibility of actual screen intercourse rose into view.

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The film has several interesting women characters (including Kwan’s Miss Hyde in the mirror), but they do exist to drive home the lesson — the lonely spinster, the jealous, bitter mistress. And by making sex a practical impossibility, the movie unwisely creates for itself the problem George Axelrod diagnosed in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH: “The play was about a married man who cheats and feels guilty about it, whereas the film was about a married man who doesn’t cheat and feels guilty about it, so the film became rather trivial.” At the end of THE WILD AFFAIR — which is pretty entertaining  while it’s on — the main character has contemplated pre-marital sex and then decided against it — the wrong message for its era, and a heart-breaking waste of its adorable, sexy, smart and stylish star.