‘Flower Drum Song’ still sings

Released in 1961, Flower Drum Song was a revolutionary movie for its time and would be unheard of if it were attempted today–a big-studio musical with a largely Asian American cast.

The screening of Flower Drum Song at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival last night featured added subtitles for all the songs so the crowd could sing-along. The audience skewed a bit older than the average film festival crowd, and no doubt many were reliving memories of when the movie was released. The songs and performances are amazing as is seeing so many Asian Americans on the screen in a movie made in the early 1960s.

I had never seen Flower Drum Song until last night, and while some of the dialogue and plot points may seem hokey in 2007, the issues it dealt with–generational conflict, assimilation and even illegal immigration–still resonate today.

It’s easy to see why James Shigeta, Nancy Kwan and Miyoshi Umeki are so fondly revered for their performances as the lead characters. And it was a hoot seeing Jack Soo, who I’d never seen in anything other than Barney Miller.

Flower Drum Song is based on a novel by C.Y. Lee and was a Broadway play with music by the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein before it was a movie. It would probably take as much star power to get a similar movie green lit by a major studio today, and so far that hasn’t happened. (But do watch out for the indie Colma: The Musical.)

At the Q&A after the screening of The Trouble With Romance, actor Roger Fan said the studios are slowly becoming more accepting of Asian Americans non-stereotypical roles, but for now we’ll have to rely on indie filmmakers, the SFIAA and other festivals until Hollywood catches up.

This post can also be found on Hyphen magazine’s blog.

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