Director: Richard Quine
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Last night at a birthday party for a friend of mine, conversation turned to major events of the day. Here in Illinois, speculation is rampant about whether Jesse Jackson, Jr. offered to pay his way to a U.S. Senate seat. Some didn’t believe it; others said it would be just like the offspring of an opportunistic, anti-Semitic father who stuck his face in front of cameras early and often. The hubby said, “You should have seen those guys driving around in poor Atlanta neighborhoods in Cadillacs!” I countered that better the civil rights leaders than the drug dealers. The idea behind riding in a Cadillac is aspirational—this can be yours if you reach for it and stop settling for what The Man gives you.
Whether that argument sits well with you or not, there can be no doubt that poor people without the advantages of schooling, connections, or visibility still aspire to a better life. The World of Suzie Wong is a film that contrasts the haves with the have-nots in colonial Hong Kong and more subtly than insistently shows how difficult it can be to climb out of poverty. Surrounded by the candy wrapper of pretty costumes, happy hookers, little violence, and tidy environs, The World of Suzie Wong delivers a potent message to an audience that normally wouldn’t go anywhere near it. This is a Hollywood-style romance—it’s actually a British production—with some real heft.
Shot on location in Hong Kong, Suzie Wong opens with a breathtaking view of the colony from the water. Against a backdrop of steep, populated hills, Chinese junks, commercial vessels from other lands, and ferries mark the location as a lively hub of commerce. A 40ish American man named Robert Lomax (William Holden) is sitting on a ferry sketching its Chinese passengers. He catches sight of a pretty girl (Nancy Kwan) cooing happily at a baby in its grandmother’s arms. When the girl sees him, she becomes angered. He tries to explain what he is doing, but she insists over and over, “No talk.” She walks off, leaving her purse on her seat. The elderly woman asks Robert to return it to her; when he does, she accuses him of stealing it. The misunderstanding is straightened out to the policeman who intervenes, and Robert and the young woman strike up a less contentious conversation. She says she is Mai Ling, daughter of a rich hotelier. She is readying herself for a trip to America to marry her rich fiancé, a man she has never met. Robert is aghast, but Mai Ling shrugs; this is the Chinese way.
When the ferry docks, Mai Ling tells Robert to go away. Her father is sending a car to meet her, and he would be very upset to learn she had been speaking to a strange man. She disappears, and Robert gets into a cab. In response to his request for a cheap hotel, the cabbie takes him to the Nam Kok, a modest establishment next to a very loud tavern in a poor section of town. Encouraged by the fact that there is a great rooftop view of Hong Kong, Robert engages a room for a month. He learns quickly after a couple of sailors knock at his door that he has been given the regular room of a prostitute named Minnie Ho (Yvonne Shima). He also learns when he goes to the adjoining tavern that his extraordinary rental of the room for a whole month has made him the talk of the small community he has now become a part of.
Robert sees Mai Ling get into a ricksaw outside his hotel. He asks around about her, but nobody knows a Mai Ling. Soon, when he sees her in the tavern chatting up and dancing with a number of men, he learns her real name is Suzie Wong. She’s illiterate and was abandoned by her family at the age of 10, forced by lack of skills and opportunity to be a Wan Chai girl (prostitute).
Robert is strongly attracted to her but wants to be free of distractions. He has made a promise to himself to spend the next year trying to be a serious painter. If he fails, he’ll go back to San Francisco and resume his career as an architect. He asks Suzie up to his room, but rather than pay for her body, he offers to pay her to model for him. She’s insulted and worried about losing face, but nonetheless, agrees. Over the months they work together, she and Robert let their walls down and come to know each other on a deeper level. She makes up stories about herself, about what she would like to be, to keep hope for a better future alive. She is aspirational, as are all the Wan Chai girls. Their best hope, as with so many movie hookers, is to get an exclusive boyfriend or possibly even a good husband. Naturally, it’s a long shot.
Unlike Suzie, Robert is an easy fit into the British overclass. Merely by visiting Mr. O’Neill (Laurence Naismith), a banker who will look after his nest egg, Robert gets letters of introduction to allow him to do business freely all over Hong Kong. He also meets O’Neill’s daughter Kay (Sylvia Syms), who takes a romantic shine to him and offers to help him show his paintings in a London gallery. At the same time, Ben (Michael Wilding), a recently separated British businessman who met Suzie the same night Robert finds out who she really is, comes back into her life with an offer to take care of her.
To its credit, this film lowers the volume on these love triangles and delivers on its promise to show us Suzie Wong’s world. The Wan Chai district is filled with British and Australian sailors and businessmen looking for a good time or an escape from their worries, and the marginal young women who provide them. Although the hotel, tavern, and streets are cleaned up for the comfort of the viewing audience, they still breathe with the lives of their people. Having a john beat one up out of jealousy is a mark of honor among these girls. Picking up a guy only to ditch him is a way a prostitute can avoid breaking the law against unaccompanied women going into bars.
Part of Suzie’s world is racist, and it gets an airing during a dinner party at the O’Neills. I thought a bit of Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), except that here we are seeing the British completely relaxed being themselves with their own kind. There is a bit of tweaking Mr. O’Neill engages in by inventing a sister married to a Chinese man, but fiction is about as close as he wants to get to equality. It is only in the honesty of the love that has grown between Suzie and Robert, beautifully realized by Kwan and an amazingly sexy William Holden, that we truly get beyond racism.
Most of all, Nancy Kwan gives a powerhouse debut performance. Suzie is an amazing creation. She has her catchphrase “For goodness sake” and “no talk,” which, had Robert been more worldly about Hong Kong when he met her, would have tipped him to her real profession (“No money, no talk.”). She reaches her emotions honestly while still showing them in an understated Asian way. For example, when a sailor beats her up, and probably rapes her, she shows up at Robert’s room with a bleeding lip. Contrasting with Robert’s horror, Suzie just says, “Sailor hit me,” as a commonplace.
But Kwan’s true genius in tackling the role of Suzie is her use of her extraordinary body awareness. Trained as a dancer, Kwan moves better than just about any actress I’ve ever seen. She is kinetic without being frantic, sexually suggestive without being tawdry. In one scene, Robert follows her into the hillside neighborhoods where she maintains a secret life; it is her walk rather than an astute camera that keeps her on our radar screen, an individual presence standing apart from the chaos of humanity through which she makes her way.
In a rather clichéd manner, the director uses wardrobe to cue a change in Suzie—going from satin, side-slit dresses of one bright color to demure white blouses and pedal pushers. This wasn’t necessary, as Kwan made that character transition without any help. Thankfully, the paintings Robert makes in this film actually are quite good, worth quitting a prosperous career to pursue; they are the work of Elizabeth Moore, who also contributed paintings and sculptures to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Certainly, this world is idealized—no drunken or drug-addicted whores in this bunch—and collapses a bit into flaming melodrama involving the rescue of a baby from a landslide. Nonetheless, The World of Suzie Wong escapes many of the pitfalls of “travelogue” motion pictures and delivers a solid drama and a new star in Nancy Kwan.