SFIAFF: Diamond Head offers a perfect read of old Hollywood's racial mixed messages
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hollywood's hitherto stereotypical or simply indifferent portrayal of Asians progressed, albeit in one-step-forward-two-steps-back fashion. (Notably horrifying was Mickey Rooney's 1961 yellowface caricature as Holly Golightly's "Japanese" neighbor Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's.)
South Pacific (1958), Flower Drum Song (1961), The World of Suzie Wong (1960), and several Sam Fullerdirected pulp actioners (like 1959's The Crimson Kimono) promoted tolerance and understanding, however compromised they might look now. Nor is sincerity an issue in 1963's Diamond Head, which gets a rare revival screening at this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. This glossy Panavision soap opera, based on a pulpy novel (Peter Gilman's Such Sweet Thunder), offers a perfect mixed-message read of Hollywood's hesitant multiculturalist liberalism at the time.
Charlton Heston, then at the height of box-office stardom (concurrently a significant civil rights activist, before his infamous conservativism later in life) plays the politically aspirational, bullwhip-wielding macho Richard "King" Howland, ruler of a vast Hawaiian pineapple ranch. He's got a borderline incestuous interest in preventing kid sister Sloane (Yvette Mimieux) from marrying "half-caste" Paul (teen idol James Darren in light-cocoaface). That intervention is intervened by Paul's big brother Dr. Dean (West Side Story's George Chakiris, two years later, again with the dusky "ethnic" makeup). Meanwhile Heston's "Dick" (ahem) hypocritically keeps mistress Mai Chen (a stilted Frances Nuyen, famed from South Pacific and ridiculously self-serving protests against 1993's The Joy Luck Club when her big scene was cut). Blackmail, jealousy, arguably accidental death, and provocative Caucasian hula-dancing likewise figure into the contrived melodramatics.
Diamond Head sports the sort of juicy-coarse plotting that used to be called "claptrap." It's not wholly camp yet. But the widescreen gloss, corny emoting, and sheer presence of über-alpha-male Heston at his Sir Smirksalot peak are getting there, fast. Buried somewhere in these vanilla histrionics are fairly sharp digs against ethnic prejudice. Mimieux even says, "Someday all bloods will be mixed and all races gone. Where's the loss?" a remarkably hopeful statement for 1963. Or today. Diamond Head semi-embarrasses now. Yet it also tries admirably hard to get over its inherent miscegenationalist sensationalism, which does count for something.
Sun/15, noon, $11
Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF
THE SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL March 1222. Main venues are the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $11) are available at www.asianamericanmedia.org . For this week's schedule, see film listings.