||The mere mention of “Suzie Wong” may induce a collective case of full-body cringing in some circles, as the fictional character’s name calls to mind stereotypical images of an all-too-willing Oriental lotus blossom. Following this line of thought, the fictional character represents the type of poor, defenseless “colored” woman that can only be saved from a life of squalor through one thing – the love of a good white man. If such a characterization of poor Suzie holds true, then the film in which she appears, The World of Suzie Wong (1960), is likely to offend contemporary audiences on a variety of levels.
But now, some fifty years removed from the film’s initial theatrical release, can we honestly say that such negative associations are entirely fair or even accurate? While the broad strokes of these allegations seem true enough, perhaps The World of Suzie Wong should not be written off so quickly as American Orientalist fare playing into Hollywood miscegenation fantasies. Perhaps there are otherwise ignored nuances that remain to be teased out as well as game performances worth commending amongst this otherwise culturally problematic film. Whatever its thematic or narrative content, there remains one thing that’s undeniable about The World of Suzie Wong – it’s a gorgeously-shot picture.
Based on the 1957 novel by Richard Mason and adapted from the stage play by Paul Osborn, The World of Suzie Wong suffered a troubled production process, which almost jeopardized the project’s completion. French-Vietnamese actress Frances Nuyen, the star of the Broadway version of The World of Suzie Wong, found herself out of a job after completing five weeks of location shooting in Hong Kong. Published accounts differ as to why she was fired – everything from laryngitis to weight gain to relationship problems with boyfriend Marlon Brando have been offered – and the casting brouhaha resulted in another big change, as original director Jean Negulesco was replaced by Richard Quine. Whatever its production problems, the resultant film shows no inklings of what must have been a tumultuous behind-the-scenes-drama for a major Hollywood production.
Plot-wise, The World of Suzie Wong plays out as an outsider’s view of Hong Kong, with the the outsider in question being an American (British in the novel) architect named Robert Lomax (William Holden). Fed up with the daily grind, Robert decides to take a year off from work and follow his private dreams of becoming an artist. Exactly why he picked Hong Kong of all places in the world is not made clear, but Robert won’t be dissuaded by his minimal Mandarin and Cantonese language skills.
While riding on the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island, Robert runs into a young, haughty Chinese girl named Mee Ling (Nancy Kwan), who claims to not only be rich, but chaste as well (“Me, virgin” are her exact words). After an unsuccessful attempt to get Robert arrested for stealing her purse (he was actually returning it), Mee Ling engages Robert in some “getting to know you” chit-chat. She then finds the opportune moment to disappear into the crowd, exiting his life just as quickly as she entered.
Smitten by this girl in what he presumably feels to be a one-time, chance encounter, Robert leaves the ferry in search of housing accommodations. With a limited amount of funds, Robert heads directly to the Wan Chai district and rents a room for a full month, a length of time that amazes the hotel owner. Why? Well, his establishment tends to specialize in rooms rented out by the hour. Although not an outright brothel per se, the hotel connects to a bar frequented by Western sailors and local hookers.
Among this bevy of attractive women of the night, Robert spies “Mee Ling” again, but in this context, she looks very different from before. Rather than prim and proper, she appears worldly, sophisticated and far from the virgin she previously claimed to be. Dressed in high heels, a slinky red cheongsam and a smile, “Mee Ling” also speaks English considerably better than her earlier Orientalized, Tarzan-esque speech patterns would lead one to believe. And if that’s not all, she’s not even “Mee Ling” - she’s Suzie Wong, the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold.
Rather than pounce at the opportunity to spend the night with Suzie, Robert instead adheres to the role of the upstanding gentleman, completely uninterested in the idea of paying for sex with Suzie. This “rejection,” as Suzie interprets it, infuriates her to no end. Despite her prickly demeanor, Suzie has quite the crush on Robert, but all he wants to do is pay her to model for him so he can start painting again. What initially begins as a professional relationship soon turns into a friendship - and then, of course, an eventual love affair.
Robert also finds himself in the orbit of a friendly banker named O’Neill (Laurence Naismith), whose elegant, art-appreciating daughter Kay (Sylvia Sims) has her sights set on him as well. Kay has key connections to the art world and seems like the conventional choice for a romance – she’s well-off, white and not a hooker. To gain acceptance in white , privileged (read: racist) society, it seems like an obvious choice. In some ways, the film flirts with the question: will Robert cave to social pressures or follow his heart? For audiences familiar with similar cross-cultural romances like Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) and Sayonara (1957), the guarantee of a positive outcome may not have been so obviously assured.
It’s perhaps an understatement to say that The World of Suzie Wong presents us with a culturally problematic narrative, particularly fifty years hence. The main objection one could level at this movie is the way in which it sets up an imbalanced cultural binary. At times, the film conflates Suzie’s “Chineseness” with immorality and economic hardship, thereby extending that amalgamation to all Chinese locals, particularly women. For instance, when a character discusses the various white men he’s known who’ve had dalliances with local Chinese woman, they are all invariably prostitutes. And really, there is not a single Chinese female in the film who is not working as a prostitute. Even Suzie’s bespectacled, goodhearted pal, Gwenny Lee (Jacqui “No relation to Jackie” Chan), seems to be a hooker as well, if one factors in her constant presence in the hotel pick-up bar and her misty-colored memories of a so-called sailor “boyfriend.”
Chinese locals, while certainly ever-present in the film, are relegated to two primary social spheres: the world of prostitution and the world of the economically destitute, as represented in the film’s shanty town location in the final act. Without any counterbalancing image of a Chinese existence outside these two worlds, it’s easy to see why this film has garnered criticism among Chinese and Chinese American audiences for its portrayal of Hong Kong life.
Certainly, contemporary feminist critics could have a field day with this movie. For one thing, Suzie’s seeming desire to be beaten by Robert is sure to raise a few eyebrows. If she doesn’t want it to actually happen, then she’s more than happy brag to her prostitute friends about how Robert beats her in a jealous rage if she even looks at another man. Of course, Robert doesn’t do anything of the sort, but Suzie’s belief that violence equals love is more than a little problematic. Ah, the romance of feigned domestic abuse!
William Holden makes for a likeable leading man, despite the fact that he is far too old to be courting someone as young as Suzie. While the film distinguishes him from other, sleazier Western expatriates, Robert isn’t exactly the squeaky-clean knight-in-shining armor Suzie sees him as either. Prone to fits of anger and undeniably guilty of the sin of foolish pride, Robert hurts Suzie emotionally at one point, causing her character to promptly disappear from his life – seemingly forever. This extended sequence towards the end of the film calls to mind Tony Leung’s character in 2046 (2004) and also reminds us of Wong Kar-Wai’s William Holden reference/subplot in Days of Being Wild (1990). Holden was a cool character in the late Fifties/early Sixties, and this film gives a sense of why.
His co-star, twenty-year-old Nancy Kwan, makes quite the splash in her feature film debut. Her initial scenes with the character speaking broken English seem grating at first, but once the character reveals that she’s merely toying with Robert’s cultural expectations, it becomes a curious case of ethnic performance. Kwan makes for a charismatic screen presence, especially in her ability to imbue the character with a complexity that is perhaps not quite there in the dialogue, particularly as the film delves into its darker final act.
But the real star of the film may just be Hong Kong itself, or – perhaps more accurately – cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Bearing credits on everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Superman: The Movie (1978), Unsworth does some of his finest work in The World of Suzie Wong. The mix of actual Hong Kong locations with studio shooting at MGM’s lot in England results in a veritable feast for the eyes. Whether it’s the sweeping, panoramic vistas of Hong Kong or the incongruous sight of Hollywood star William Holden plunked down in the middle of a busy crowd, the film – on a purely visual level – reads like a love letter to Hong Kong.
While The World of Suzie Wong makes for an all-too easy punching bag, I think it’s incumbent upon us to recognize its contributions as well as its shortcomings. After all, the film certainly broke boundaries by having William Holden and Nancy Kwan kissing onscreen, engaged in a clearly sexual relationship. It’s not just that the casting of Nancy Kwan flies in the face of the sort of Yellowface casting that predominated films of the previous decades; one must also remember that U.S. anti-miscegenation laws didn’t get overturned until 1967 – a full seven years after this film hit theaters. In effect, what The World of Suzie Wong showed and valorized was something that was still considered taboo in many parts of the nation. And considering Suzie’s profession, the filmmakers didn’t make it any easier a pill to swallow
As beautiful as the film is, The World of Suzie Wong is by no means a timeless classic (if such a thing exists), but I would concede that it serves as an interesting time capsule of sorts, for those curious about another time, another place and another set of norms. For me, the ambiguity that pervades the film’s dark but somehow still hopeful finale mirrors my own feelings of ambivalence for The World of Suzie Wong. (Calvin McMillin 2010)