Looks like the American Cinematheque is at it again, providing unique programing along with relevant guests and in-person appearances. This Thursday, August 11 at 7:30pm at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood actress Nancy Kwan will appear between the screenings of the documentary, To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song. In case you haven’t guessed already, the documentary is about Kwan and in the other film she is one of the main stars. The discussion between films will include the actress as well as the documentary’s director, Brian Jamieson. And in addition, there will be a cast reunion of many of the actors from Flower Drum Song!
The brand new documentary, To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey follows actress Nancy Kwan from her birth in Hong Kong to her big screen debut in the 1960 Hollywood feature film The World of Suzie Wong, and continues through her life right up to the present. The film uses clips from Kwan’s movie and TV work, interviews with Kwan herself, and interviews with other prominent Asian and Asian/American artists to profile the life and work of a successful performer. At the same time Kwan’s career is used as a tool to provide insight into the changing roles of Asian women in American society through the decades.
Watching the documentary before Flower Drum Song should prove enlightening to even the biggest fan of the light-hearted musical. I’ve been watching this film since I was a child and have always found it to be thoroughly enjoyable and inoffensive. But I’m not Asian, nor am I of Asian heritage. This is not to say that the documentary is aiming to equate Flower Drum Song with Birth of a Nation, but I’m sure that there will be subtleties and nuances once lost to the average audience that will inevitably take on relevance when placed in a new context.
In this adaptation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical, Mei Li (Oscar winning actress, Miyoshi Umeki) arrives in San Francisco for an arranged marriage. She and her father have apparently been stow-a-ways aboard a freighter. This may have been (and it was) funny to 1960s audiences, but it’s hardly PC by today’s standards. Many other cultural cliches abound in order to poke fun at the differences between Asian and Asian/American. For example, Mei Li’s husband-to-be played by Jack Soo is involved with a hot and sexy nightclub performer played by the well-cast Nancy Kwan, who is likewise pursuing a straight-laced college boy who straddles the cultural fence between tradition and cultural integration. Stereo types continue at a gallop, however the strength of the actors really go along way to make these cliches bearable. In fact, one of the particularly strong aspects of the film is its use of a generally under-utilized talent pool in the Hollywood of any era; that of the Asian or Asian/American actor.
Regardless of any offenses, I can’t help but like Flower Drum Song. Nor do I think anyone would try to dissuade one’s appreciation of this well-crafted, and exceptionally good film. That is not the point of To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey. The documentary purely strives, and succeeds, at providing perspective, which in turn results in a greater understanding, and even greater appreciation for a beloved cinema classic.
And you can’t beat the price for a full evening of entertainment in Los Angeles. General Admission is $11.00, but Cinematheque Members pay just $7.00, and Seniors 65+, as well as students get in for $9.00. Since the Egyptian Theatre is located in the heart of Hollywood (6712 Hollywood Boulevard) just blocks from Mann’s Chinese Theatre you can make a real night of it with dinner at one of the many restaurants along the legendary Walk of Fame. While you’re walking be sure to check out all the names passing below your feet. You may be surprised to see how few Asian names appear along the way.