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January 13, 2011

A Girl Named Tamiko

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John Sturges - 1962
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Why is it that fifty years ago, there were two Asian women who could be top billed Hollywood stars, and now, in these allegedly more progressive times, there's no one? While it's true that Nancy Kwan was in the more high profile films, her sometime professional rival, France Nuyen would have her name clearly visible on movie posters. Was there some kind of oriental fetish going on that seemed to coincide with Kennedy administration? Was the use of Asian actors an indirect way for Hollywood to deal with racial issues? I have no answers, and certainly this John Sturges film brings up more questions.

For a film that's suppose to be serious about issues regarding race and racism, the lurid advertising pitch seems all wrong: "He was half Oriental...but he used the women of two continents WITHOUT SHAME OR GUILT!". The film as it stands seem to have its heart in the right place, or at least makes everyone look like they should be shameful or guilty of something, with the exception of the title character. The tag line would have Lithuanian born Laurence Harvey as a villain as much for toying with the affections of France Nuyen and Martha Hyer as for being half Russian and half Chinese. Maybe the copy people thought such a tag line would sell tickets, but it goes against what the message of the film.

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Harvey's character, a photographer named Ivan Kalin, who has doggedly pursued getting a visa to immigrate to the U.S. for twelve years. It's never explained how he got into his current situation, but Kalin is a stateless refuge, hoping of a piece of the American dream, and the supposition that he would be regarded as less of a foreigner in the United States. Kalin's caddish behavior is cemented by his brush off of sometime girlfriend Eiko, a bar girl, especially when he tries to get together with the blonde Fay Wilson, someone who could presumably help with professional connections. Kalin finds himself increasingly attracted to Tamiko, a young woman working at the Foreign Press Club library, and again someone who could help with her family connections. Fay pushes Kalin away, only to force herself on him for a relationship on her terms, even surprising Kalin by waiting for him in his bed. Tamiko finds herself attracted to Kalin, perhaps because he allows her not to be bound by Japanese tradition.

I wondered if Ivan Kalin had seen The World of Suzie Wong. If things could work out between William Holden and Nancy Kwan, than why not in this movie? Sure, Eiko is a bar girl, but she's played by cutie pie Myoshi Umeki. I have no idea what Myoshi Umeki was really like, but on screen, no matter what role, she's been a woman with a heart of gold. Martha Hyer and France Nuyen might be more conventionally attractive, but Umeki's overwhelming sweetness stole my heart.

The casting of Nuyen was a reflection of the attitude that all Asians look the same, even though Nuyen is part Vietnamese (or Chinese, depending on which biography you read). Non-Japanese Philip Ahn and Richard Loo lend support to the film as well. At least no one is in "yellow face" as was still happening most conspicuously with Mickey Rooney and Alex Guiness. To some extent, A Girl Named Tamiko is more courageous than Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock, where the question of racism is abstract, and the mystery is a gimmick that could have been based on any unseen character that might have been a potential victim of a hate crime. While the idea of knowing Japan from the point of view of a tourist is criticized, Sturges halts the film long enough to give a tourist's view of Kyoto. Even the ending might be considered self-contradictory with Kalin finally finally coming together with Tamiko instead of heading off to San Francisco with Fay. While Tamiko is the "better woman" of the two, I also suspect that this was Hollywood's gentle way of saying that a the real happy ending was to not have a part Asian male on U.S. shores.

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Posted by peter at January 13, 2011 08:01 AM