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The new DVD for the 1961 musical Flower Drum Song comes with historical tidbits, a beefed-up soundtrack, new cast interviews, but alas no feedback from ordinary Asian Americans of a new generation -- precisely the audience that may have the most to say about the film today. APA invited blogger Angry Asian Man to help us fill in that void.
Amidst the recent flurry of new special edition DVDs of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals is one of the landmarks of Asian Americans on film: the 1961 hit Flower Drum Song. Well known at the time but nearly forgotten today, at least among young people unversed in Hollywood musicals, Flower Drum Song was the first, and arguably only, mainstream Hollywood film with a predominantly Asian American cast, in this case led by the Asian heartthrobs and Oscar-winners of its day. Today such an "ethnic" project seems impossible even as an exotic curiosity. Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, and John Cho in a musical about Chinatown? Forget about it.
So what happens when Asian American 20-somethings sit down and watch the film today? Does the film come off as repulsive and anachronistic, or is it empowering in a way no Hollywood films are today? APA invited blogger Phil Yu of angryasianman.com to share his thoughts about the film. Rather than our usual video interviews, we decided to record our own audio commentary for readers to download and cue up to the DVD. The new DVD release by Universal Home Entertainment already has an audio commentary by actress Nancy Kwan and historian Nick Redman; essentially, it privileges Kwan's insider info and Redman's expert knowledge. What it leaves out are the responses by everyday Asian Americans like Phil and I, young college grads who don't know a whole lot about Flower Drum Song, but have a love for film and a desire to see Asian Americans better represented in mainstream popular culture. What we discovered in recording the commentary is just how close Flower Drum Song hits home in terms of all the issues we typically clamor about in our respective websites (for instance Asian Americans as Americans, the diversity of the Asian American experience, Asian American male masculinity), despite the film being distant historically. In the commentary, we suggest that it's because of this historical distance that we're able to forgive certain racial problematics today, allowing a surprisingly positive and sensitive depiction of Asian Americans to come into view.
This is an experiment in criticism, employing new technologies to talk about old films. For the most part, our commentary is informal and off-the-cuff. We talk about the first time each of us watched the film. On the actors, sets, costumes, dancing, and accents, we provide commentary whose tone ranges for the laudatory to the scholarly to the borderline-inappropriate. In other words, we stay try to true to our gut feelings while pinpointing the kinds of issues Flower Drum Song raises for Asian Americans our generation. What we can't stress enough is how surprised we were by Flower Drum Song, and how deluded we have been to assume that Hollywood is becoming more progressive and that while Asian Americans have it rough today, it's necessarily better than it was 40 years ago.
Edited by Oliver ChienInstructions:
To hear our 42 minute commentary (2 hours and 12 minutes is way too long!), just download the 19 megabyte mp3 file, then burn it onto CD, load it to an mp3 player, or play it off your computer. Ideally, you have access to the new Universal DVD of Flower Drum Song, although I'd imagine the old, out-of-print VHS would work too. Hit play on the film, start the opening credit sequence, and wait about 38 seconds until the title "Flower Drum Song" starts to slowly fade in during the title card after "Rodgers and Hammerstein." As soon as you begin to see the words fade in (as in the screen capture below), hit start on the audio file, and it should be synced-up for the next 42 minutes.
We start off by introducing ourselves and why we're doing this, before getting into the film itself. We apologize for our occasional lapses in commentary -- sometimes we get sucked into the comedy and forget to speak. Finally, we'd be happy to receive any feedback you may have on our "guerilla commentary" format. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Angry Asian Man's website: http://www.angryasianman.com
Date Posted: 12/6/2006