Review: 'Flower Drum Song' Worth Revisiting

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 24, 2022

Review: 'Flower Drum Song' Worth Revisiting

"Flower Drum Song" is significant for being the only major studio feature film to have a mostly Asian-American cast. That was in 1961, and it wasn't until 1993 that another film, "The Joy Luck Club" became the second.

The movie was adapted from the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which itself was based a 1957 novel by Chin Yang Lee. The show was not as successful as their smash hits ("Oklahoma," "Carousel,"), but it ran for 600 performances on Broadway and was celebrated for casting mostly Asian actors.

The screen version is rather blandly directed by Henry Koster ("Harvey," "The Robe") with a safe, light-hearted screenplay credited to Joseph Fields. The creatives brought over a few of the stage actors including Oscar-winner Miyoshi Umeki ("Sayonara") who was Tony-nominated for her role on Broadway.

The story centers on Mei Li (Umeki), a young Chinese emigrant, and her father (Kam Tong), who enter San Francisco illegally in hopes of following through with an arranged marriage to Sammy Fong (Jack Soo), who owns a rather swanky nightclub and has been dating the showgirl headliner, Linda Low (Nancy Kwan), for the last five years. Sammy knows of another parent trying to arrange a marriage for his son and asks Master Wang (Benson Fong) to consider Mei Li. He does, and approves, but his son (handsome James Shigeta) is also dating Linda Low. And that's just the beginning...

The narrative is basically a facile series of love stories and the complications that arise in such tales. It does take on generation gap themes and old-world customs/manners vs. assimilation/modern ways of living.

The show itself was seen as outdated for years, until a 2002 revival opened in L.A. and then on Broadway where playwright David Henry Hwang kept the songs but rewrote the book to reflect the darker tone of the story. It was not a critical or commercial success.

Seeing the film today, one is aware of the simply-drawn characters, the too-comedic tone, and how appropriation comes into the conversation. But some revisionist critics blast the film for its one-dimensional stereotypes, and that diminishes the wonderful, nuanced work done by several of the actors, notably Umeki, who always underplays her pain of constantly being rejected and does her best to show us Mei Li's layers.

Kwan also delivers a terrific turn in a role that could have easily been reduced to cheap gold digger. Her Linda is concerned about her future in a male-dominated world. And Kwan (whose voice was dubbed by B.J. Baker for the songs) is masterful in, arguably, the best musical number in the film, "I Enjoy Being a Girl." She's an alternate universe Ann-Margret.

Shigeta's real-life nephew, Patrick Adiarte, plays his cheeky and confident younger brother, Wang San, and steals his moments. While Wang San's sexual orientation is never mentioned, he's quite comfortable in his own fabulous skin, and I found his character most refreshing and unique — especially in a studio-released musical.

Umeki and Shigeta were Japanese, playing Chinese. Juanita Moore was African-American playing Chinese — anyone looking to take issue with casting, 60 years later, should probably not seek the film out.

But for those who wish to enjoy the best Asian talent working in film at the time, most of whom were usually relegated to playing servants and servers, taking center stage and crushing it — especially Umeki and Kwan — pick up this Blu-ray.

The 2K Master transfer is top-notch, with the Oscar-nominated cinematography, art direction, and costume design all looking swell. And the Oscar-nominated score and sound are preserved in the fine soundtrack. The film received five nominations total, but lost to the "West Side Story" juggernaut.

Special features include 45 minutes of featurettes on the making of the film, boasting interviews with key players, as well as an audio commentary that features Nancy Kwan — who was never even given an opportunity to sing the songs herself — all carried over from the 2006 Universal Special Edition DVD release.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • Brand New 2K Masters

  • Audio Commentary by Star Nancy Kwan with Film Historian Nick Redman

  • A Classic Evolves: From Print to Stage to Screen — Broadway legends Rodgers & Hammerstein adopt the best-selling novel into a theatrical hit and a Hollywood classic (19:06)

  • Faces of the East: Casting Flower Drum Song — Learn how the film was one of Hollywood's first to cast Asian actors as strong Chinese characters who achieve success and happiness (9:09)

  • The Songs of "Flower Drum Song" — From the unforgettable

    "I Enjoy Being a Girl" to the East-meets-West classic "Chop Suey," experience the wonder of these dazzling musical numbers (11:00)

  • An All-Access Pass to the Sets and Costumes of Flower Drum Song (5:52)

  • The Legacy of Rodgers & Hammerstein (4:25)

  • Theatrical Trailer (Newly Mastered in 2K)

  • 5.1 Surround & Lossless 2.0 Audio

  • Optional English Subtitles

    "Flower Drum Song" is available on Blu-ray on May 24, 2022.

    Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute