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A thoughtful meditation on the life of rather unique actress, To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey is a biographical documentary about Nancy Kwan, whose story is packed with interesting angles and important issues. Ms. Kwan has seen a lot -- she was a child in Hong Kong during the Second World War and a major star during the last years of the studio system, and she had to make some unusual career and family decisions. Her colorful story seems appropriate for adaptation as a dramatic play a movie. That almost seems to come to pass, when To Whom It May Concern integrates into its fabric a Ballet written and choreographed around Kwan's most famous character, Suzie Wong.
The biography is told from an objective viewpoint as well as Ms. Kwan's personal memoirs. The show is highly sentimental yet we never feel as if we're watching a vanity piece or a hagiographic whitewash. The bare facts are compelling in themselves. A Chinese student in London in the 1930s, Kwan's father fell in love with an English stage actress. Defying social barriers, they married and relocated to Hong Kong. Ka Shen Kwan was born practically as WW2 broke out. Trained as a dancer, Nancy instead became famous as an almost instant movie star. Signed by producer Ray Stark, she became the first Asian (in her case, Eurasian) actress to play a starring romantic role in a Hollywood film, in 1960's The World of Suzie Wong. Her very next film Flower Drum Song earned her top billing and allowed her to show off her skill as a singer and dancer. In career terms she never topped those two first achievements.
The biography maintains a personal connection to its subject at all times. Kwan's film roles are fully studied and illustrated with ample film excerpts. Her family story is given just as much emphasis. Very close to her father and estranged from a mother that she seldom saw, Kwan was committed to her first husband, an Austrian, and her child. She spent a decade out of the Hollywood mainstream, to be close to her father in Hong Kong. The latter part of the show concerns the tragedy of her son, who became a Hollywood stunt man but died at an early age in tragic circumstances.
Some of Kwan's story is told in old film clips and family photographs. The docu also approaches its subject's spiritual side, with new sequences of Kwan visiting Angkor Wat and her grade school in Hong Kong. Montages of Ms. Wong at the ancient Cambodian temple recur without seeming an intrusion.
The show opens with an audience gathering for a performance of a Hong Kong Ballet based on The World of Suzie Wong. Never did a bio-doc have a better structural framework, as we see Ms. Kwan reacting to dramatization of scenes, some of which parallel her own life experiences. To Whom It May Concern has the expected interviews with its subject and her family and colleagues, but also the fascinating spectacle of Kwan watching dancers interpret a fictional character that has become part of her own identity.
This narrative device acknowledges the impact of "Suzie Wong" on Ms. Kwan, bringing associations and identification issues that weren't always welcome. Suzie Wong is a carefree Hong Kong prostitute who falls in love with an artist, played by the handsome William Holden. The young Nancy Kwan was a cheerful, vivacious and highly educated classical ballet dancer. She was strongly associated with the role of Susie Wong and had to deal with the false presumption that she embodied the "China Doll" stereotype, the girl with the side-slit cheongsam dress. Years before, that cultural image had put limits on the career of the great star Anna May Wong. American movies of the 1960s weren't ready for a Eurasian actress to play anything other than a Good Time Girl, or perhaps a menacing Dragon Lady of colonial fantasies. All Kwan could hope to do is transcend the stereotype, which she certainly did in Flower Drum Song. Her independent and enterprising Linda Low sings and dances to Rogers and Hammerstein's music, defying 'types' as she puts the songs across as well as any New York- bred entertainer.
The constraints faced by Asian actors lead another interesting chapter of To Whom It May Concern into a light discussion of Asian and Asian-American casting in films. When Suzie Wong came out it was still acceptable for Anglos to don Yellow-face makeup, to play leading roles in Asian-themed films, while real Asians were seen on the periphery. We hear testimony from France Nuyen, Vivian Wu and Joan Chen. Nancy Kwan go her big break when she replaced France Nuyen in Suzie Wong, but the docu does not go into details. It instead treads only lightly on Kwan's later career.
After being cast in forgettable studio parts in the later 1960s, Nancy Kwan came back mostly in lower-tier adventure and action movies. The docu shifts gears to concentrate on her complicated personal life before settling on the story of how she dealt with the sickness and loss of her beloved son.
To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey is smoothly edited by Brandon L. Hull and David Strohmaier, using an evocative music score by Chris Babida and featuring occasional water color artwork graphics by Jin G. Kam. The narrator Nick Redman adds an additional professional touch. Only later on do we realize that the film's title is taken from a dialogue line from The World of Suzie Wong.
Redwind's DVD of To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey is a professional release with excellent quality video for about 4/5ths of its running time. New footage, interviews and scenes filmed in San Francisco, Cambodia and Hong Kong are flawless, as are the many film clips from Nancy Kwan's movies -- including what must have been expensive-to-license musical clips from Flower Drum Song. Kwan's fame is such that she shares the media spotlight at the ballet with another attendee, Jackie Chan. The video clips of the stage presentation of the Suzie Wong ballet are quite beautiful. So it's a bit surprising to see some of the animated still photography sequences break up with heavy artifacting, as if they were exported from an offline system at an inadequate level of resolution. It isn't a widespread flaw, as complex dissolves and layering elsewhere in the show come off without a hitch.
The audio is quite good, especially Chris Babida's soothing soundtrack. The present DVD landscape is crowded with documentary films, many with interesting subjects. To Whom It May Concern stands out by virtue of its superior directorial organization. The show covers a war, a controversial marriage, an unlikely ascent to stardom and the side issue of racial politics in film, without ever getting lost in a tangent. The presence of the very special Ms. Kwan keeps the docu on task -- the more we see of this poised and optimistic woman, the more we like her.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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