A breakthrough movie that advanced the profile of Asian actors and Chinese culture in America, The World of Suzie Wong may have lost its bite, but director Richard Quine's tender adaptation of the popular novel and play still warms our hearts. Extensive location shooting in Hong Kong and the chemistry between stars William Holden and Nancy Kwan make the unlikely romance between an American expatriate and Asian prostitute easier to accept, while a beautiful new HD master dazzles the eyes. Robust audio and a huge supplemental package that includes two terrific feature-length documentaries add to the allure of Imprint's limited edition presentation of an important - if flawed - film. Highly Recommended.
The World of Suzie Wong premiered during a transitional and turbulent period in Hollywood. The loosening of censorship's stranglehold on the film industry allowed once taboo topics to be addressed with a modicum of frankness, while the collapse of the studio system spawned more international and independent productions. Such newfound freedoms buoy director Richard Quine's adaptation of Richard Mason's novel and Paul Osborn's hit Broadway play about an upstanding American who falls for an Asian prostitute, but beneath the veneer of its exotic Hong Kong location and titillating subject matter, The World of Suzie Wong is really an old-fashioned love story more akin to the traditional fare of yore than the edgy, New Wave filmmaking that would soon define the 1960s.
When architect Robert Lomax (William Holden) chucks his job and moves to Hong Kong to pursue his interest in painting, little does he know the cheap hotel where he decides to shack up and hone his craft doubles as a brothel. He also quickly discovers the attractive, spunky young woman whom he met on the ferry and who professed to be the daughter of a very rich and respected man turns tricks there. Suzie Wong (Nancy Kwan) is the belle of the hotel bar, seducing an endless string of horny sailors and frustrated middle-aged men (one of whom is memorably played by Michael Wilding), but much to her amazement and chagrin, Robert's interest in her is purely professional.
Robert convinces Suzie to (tastefully) pose for him while resisting her constant entreaties to become his "regular girlfriend," yet as time passes and he learns more about her and the culture and poverty that has shaped her life, his defenses collapse. Building an interracial relationship in the stuffy, close-minded confines of British-controlled Hong Kong, however, is no easy task, and as more details about Suzie's life emerge, it's uncertain whether the couple can withstand the forces that threaten their happiness.
The World of Suzie Wong is very much a film of its time, and there's a lot about it that's tough to accept, beginning with a nearly 40-year-old man's initial naïveté about both Suzie's profession and his sleazy hotel's transient nature, especially when that man is played by the worldly, macho Holden. Then there's the fairy tale depiction of poor, uneducated, and often abused prostitutes as happy hookers who thoroughly enjoy their work, as well as the myriad coincidences upon which much of the story hinges. All that provokes some head-shaking during the film's sluggish first half, but once the romance and drama heat up and such potent themes as racial and social prejudice and the negative impact of colonialism take center stage, cynicism becomes supplanted by emotion. As hard as I tried to resist it, the unabashed sweetness of The World of Suzie Wong got to me and I willingly succumbed to the picture's warm, fuzzy charms.
It might seem tame today, but The World of Suzie Wong was pretty hot stuff six decades ago. Screenwriter John Patrick, who also penned the Asian-themed The Teahouse of the August Moon and earned an Oscar nod for the classic film noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, tries his best to honestly depict Robert and Suzie's relationship, but Hollywood can't help sugarcoating - and even ignoring - its uglier aspects. The fascinating location shooting in Hong Kong adds essential grit and atmosphere, but such elements are often at odds with the tried-and-true conventions that permeate the film.
Holden, as always, files a solid portrayal and his charisma lights up the screen, but his (relatively) advanced age - he's 42, but easily looks a decade older - somewhat strains the film's credibility. (Twenty-seven-year-old William Shatner made a name for himself when he originated the role on Broadway.) The two-decade age difference between Holden and Kwan often makes Robert's attentions toward Suzie seem more fatherly than amorous, and though they create excellent chemistry, their relationship lacks the urgency and sexual electricity that course through similar tales like Madame Butterfly and South Pacific.
Kwan, in her film debut, makes a dazzling impression as the free-spirited, spunky Suzie, combining sassy allure, streetwise toughness, and touching vulnerability to craft a dimensional performance. A last-minute replacement for France Nuyen, who played opposite Shatner on Broadway and made a huge splash in the film version of South Pacific two years earlier, Kwan instantly proves she's up to tackling a leading role in a big-budget Hollywood movie despite her minimal experience. Her Eurasian heritage brings essential authenticity to the part and her casting helped expand horizons for Asian actors. Though she plays a racial stereotype, Kwan infuses Suzie with enough depth to break her out of the clichéd mold.
Sadly, the same can't be said of the movie. The World of Suzie Wong tries to shed the shackles of mainstream Hollywood, but can't quite manage it. Though entertaining, the film is too slick and superficial much of the time, relying on travelogue and light comedy for well over an hour before finally getting its hands dirty. More rawness and realism would give the film the edge it seems to crave, but the progressive strides it does make are admirable. The prostitutes actually act like prostitutes, and their profession isn't masked by such lame euphemisms as "dance hall girls" or "hostesses" like Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity just a few years before. At one point, Robert even says the "p" word, as he cruelly yells to Suzie, "Why don't you go back to being a prostitute!"...a moment that might have been as groundbreaking and gasp-inducing as Holden uttering the word "virgin" in 1953's The Moon Is Blue or James Stewart saying "panties" in Anatomy of a Murder the year before.
Despite its stumbles, Suzie Wong's heart is in the right place, making this flawed but entertaining movie difficult to resist, much like Suzie herself. Change in Hollywood tends to come gradually, so while it's a shame The World of Suzie Wong doesn't make a giant leap forward, at least its baby steps are in the right direction.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The World of Suzie Wong arrives on Blu-ray in a special limited edition from Imprint packaged in an attractive hard box with removable top. Two discs in separate standard clear cases are packaged inside. One contains The World of Suzie Wong and its supplemental material; the other houses the feature-length documentary Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films and its supplemental material. Video codec for both films is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4. Audio for The World of Suzie Wong is LPCM mono 2.0 and audio for Hollywood Chinese is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 stereo. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the static menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
A new HD master produced by Paramount Pictures yields a lovely 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that immerses us in the exotic world of Suzie Wong. Excellent contrast and clarity combine with a natural grain structure to produce a lush, cohesive, incredibly film-like picture that faithfully honors the cinematography of two-time Oscar-winner Geoffrey Unsworth. Colors are especially arresting. The bold red accents of buses and rickshaws; the deep purple, turquoise, tangerine, yellow, and red in the bar girls' satin gowns; the amber hue of beer; the multi-colored paper lampshade in Robert's hotel room; Suzie's jade earrings; Robert's gaudy red, white, and blue striped bathrobe; the verdant greens of the mountains and foliage; Holden's crystal blue eyes; and the array of colored neon lights dotting the Hong Kong streets are all beautifully rich. So, too, are the inky blacks that punctuate the frame, like the black dinner jackets and Holden's slick, jet-black hair. Details in wallpaper, upholstery, clothing, and bits of decor pop, sharp close-ups highlight the wrinkles and slight bags underneath Holden's eyes, and good shadow delineation keeps crush at bay.
A gauzy quality that may have been an intentional artistic choice afflicts a few scenes, some shots exhibit noticeable softness, and a smattering of nicks and marks occasionally crop up, but such mild hiccups never disrupt the film's flow or dampen enthusiasm for this superior transfer. I don't own any previous home video version of The World of Suzie Wong, but it's impossible to imagine the movie looking any better than it does here.
The LPCM 2.0 mono track pumps out wonderfully nuanced audio that considerably enhances the film's Asian flavor. Superior fidelity and tonal depth help the lush, romantic score by five-time Oscar nominee George Duning fill the room with ease and a wide dynamic scale handles all of its highs, lows, and delicate accents without a hint of distortion. Subtle atmospherics like urban hubbub, ferry horns, the clicking motor of a fishing boat, the delicate chimes of a clock, faint rain, and footsteps on concrete are distinct, while sonic accents like torrential rain, thunderclaps, and sirens make bold statements. Almost all the dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend (although a few exchanges during the climactic storm sequence are obscured by competing effects) and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle disrupt the film's flow. This is a surprisingly vibrant, well-balanced track that helps heighten our enjoyment of the film.
A substantial supplemental package sweetens the appeal of this elegant release.
Audio Commentary - Film historians Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo sit down for an affable commentary that addresses the movie's themes, examines the differences between the novel and film, and contains in-depth bios of Holden and Kwan. (Pfeiffer quotes extensively from an interview he did with Kwan as well.) They also discuss Holden's age, detail production problems, and criticize some of the film's weak points. The two enjoy a fine rapport and relay some good information, but occasionally struggle to fill the 126-minute running time.
Featurette: "Kaleidoscope of Colours: The Fashion of Suzie Wong (HD, 16 minutes) - Fashion historian Elissa Rose examines the film's distinctive Asian costumes, their historical origins, and the significance of their colors. She also provides a bit of background on designer Phyllis Dalton.
Feature-Length Documentary: To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey (HD, 106 minutes) - This intimate, surprisingly moving 2010 profile of Kwan by director Brian Jamieson covers her colorful, often difficult childhood, strained relationship with her estranged mother, far-reaching and lengthy career, and close bond with her son, who tragically died of AIDS in the mid-1990s. Extensive interviews with Kwan, her brother and husband, and many friends and colleagues, as well as clips from many of her film and television appearances, screen tests, newsreel footage, and rare photos highlight this lengthy but insightful and affecting documentary.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original full-screen preview hypes The World of Suzie Wong as "a motion picture of EARTH...and FIRE...and PASSIONS!"
Photo Gallery (HD, 3 minutes) - Twenty-five black-and-white scene and publicity stills and 11 color shots that include one scene still, one reproduction of the movie's poster art, and several photos of the paintings used in the film comprise this image gallery.
Feature-Length Documentary: Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films (HD, 89 minutes) - This fascinating, informative, and insightful 2008 documentary from writer-director Arthur Dong examines the ever-evolving depiction of Chinese people in American movies since the dawn of cinema through the eyes and experiences of many industry luminaries. Actors Nancy Kwan, B.D. Wong, Joan Chen, Luise Rainer, Christopher Lee, Turhan Bey, James Shigeta, and James Hong, directors Ang Lee, Wayne Wang, and Justin Lin, writer Amy Tan, and many others share their perspectives, and an abundance of film clips dating all the way back to 1898 add context to their comments. Topics include the impact of Hollywood films on the Chinese people in China, the industry's penchant for casting American actors in Chinese roles throughout the Golden Age, the racial prejudice and stereotypes that persisted over the decades (including casting Chinese actors as sadistic Japanese soldiers during World War II), the popularity of martial arts movies, the depiction of Chinese masculinity, and the contributions of such groundbreaking figures as Anna May Wong, Keye Luke, Nancy Kwan, Lisa Lu, and James Wong Howe. The Good Earth, Dragon Seed, The World of Suzie Wong, Flower Drum Song, The Last Emperor, The Joy Luck Club, M. Butterfly, and Better Luck Tomorrow are just a handful of the movies this essential documentary explores.
"Nancy Kwan on The World of Suzie Wong" (HD, 4 minutes) - In these interview excerpts, some of which didn't make it into the final cut of Hollywood Chinese, Kwan talks about working with William Holden, the legacy of her performance, and the stereotype of the Asian prostitute.
Trailer for Hollywood Chinese (HD, HD, 2 minutes) - Interview and film clips comprise the preview for this exceptional documentary.
Though The World of Suzie Wong doesn't reflect the real world in many ways, director Richard Quine's colorful, romantic film still manages to worm its way into our hearts. Credit the fine work of William Holden and Nancy Kwan and exotic Hong Kong locations with elevating the appeal of this seductive tale of an American expatriate's rocky affair with a Chinese prostitute. A lush, film-like transfer, robust audio, a huge supplemental package, and handsome box-set packaging make this limited edition release from Imprint well worth importing. Highly Recommended.