American architect/draftsman Robert Lomax (William Holden, in a part obviously written for a younger man) takes a year off from his job, packs up and moves to Hong Kong to see if he's got what it takes to make it as an artist. The film opens with Lomax on the Hong Kong-Kowloon Ferry, where a wealthy, stuck-up Mee Lee (Nancy Kwan) haughtily accuses Lomax of trying to steal her purse. Later, Lomax checks himself into the modest Nam Kok Hotel, which turns out to be a brothel in league with an adjacent bar. There he discovers that Mee Lee is in fact Suzie Wong, a poor and illiterate "Wan Chai girl," a hooker.
The American becomes quite popular among the girls, and when Lomax begins using Suzie as a model for his paintings, she simultaneously tries to seduce Lomax while lying outrageously to her friends about their relationship. They do eventually fall in love, but his finances and her social standing, among other things, threaten to destroy their love affair.
In many ways The World of Suzie Wong is the culmination of the international romantic melodrama, a sub-genre that had been popular in American cinema (and which quickly spread throughout the world) since the advent of CinemaScope in 1953. In trying to lure audiences away from their then tiny black & white television sets, the industry gave audiences films that moved out of Hollywood's backlot streets to Europe and Asia.
At a time when traveling abroad was on everyone's mind but prohibitively expensive, movies like The World of Suzie Wong gave viewers a chance to experience these exotic places vicariously. Such pictures functioned as travelogues as much as a dramatic movies, and in this regard The World of Suzie Wong is one of the best of its kind. The film seems to delight in putting William Holden in the thick of things, in a bustling, endlessly fascinating Hong Kong that no longer exists, and which for most Americans in 1960 was extremely exotic, practically another planet.
Most of the time Holden seems to mingle with real people going about their business, rather than walking among carefully choreographed extras. In some shots people in the background can be glimpsed smiling at the camera or, in the case of a few Caucasians, are notably startled to see William-Omygod-Holden casually strolling past them. Mostly though Hong Kong's indigenous citizens ignore Geoffrey Unsworth's camera and the film drips with authenticity.
This is further aided by the unusually excellent integration of Hong Kong exteriors with studio interiors, all shot at MGM Studios in Borehamwood (not Boreham Wood, as listed in the credits), England. John Box, David Lean's regular production designer (assisted by Syd Cain), avoids most of the Asian cliches and overall his work is so good that by the film's climatic -- and incredibly well staged -- flood and landslide, the line between studio sets and location exteriors is impressively blurred.
The romance itself is more conventional, though racy by 1960 standards. Holden never shied away from such roles, having appeared in Otto Preminger's once highly controversial The Moon is Blue (which The World of Suzie Wong seems to indirectly reference, with Suzie loudly stating in public, "Me virgin!"). More directly, at a time when interracial romance was an especially incendiary topic, Holden was already a veteran of such films, having starred in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing five years before. In that film, Holden's Hongkongese lover was played by a Western actress (Jennifer Jones) in Asian makeup, probably because its producers were worried about how audiences might react to Holden seen kissing a real Asian. But its success, along with that of Sayonara (1957) and other films, paved the way for Suzie Wong though even here there's a bit of a cheat. Co-star Nancy Kwan seems to have been cast partly because the "Asianess" of her features are subtler and more western (her mother was English). Still, Holden and Kwan actually kiss on-camera, something that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier.
Though a long way from the frankness of films made later in the decade, The World of Suzie Wong is admirably frank for its time, with the title character a far removed from the cliched hooker with a heart of gold. Highly manipulative, Suzie in her early scenes is believably haughty, cold and calculating.
William Holden is excellent as he almost always was, playing a variation of his familiar screen persona, a relaxed blend of cool cynicism as only he could. More than any other Hollywood star, Holden had an affinity for travel, and had already made three films in Asia before this (the others were The Bridges of Toko-Ri and, of course, The Bridge on the River Kwai). Before he fell in love with Kenya, Holden loved Asia, and was instrumental in introducing Japanese cinema to the west. He acquired the rights to what is now known as Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (Miyamoto Musashi, 1954), produced its American version, and used his star power to find it an audience and help win it an Oscar. (Holden's significance was heretofore forgotten, and until revealed in this writer's book The Emperor and the Wolf, was apparently unknown even to Holden's biographers.)
Kwan is good in a role that could easily have been almost instantly tiresome and grating. Jacqui Chan (no relation) is sweet as Kwan's self-effacing co-worker, while character veterans Laurence Naismith and Bernard Cribbins also appear. Michael Wilding and Sylvia Syms are on hand in pefunctory parts to complicate Holden and Kwan's romance.
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 format, The World of Suzie Wong is presented in 16:9 anamorphic format. The image looks splendid, with great, vibrant color. (Technicolor did the original printing.) There is some visible print damage at the five-minute mark, and the title elements are notably grainier than the rest of the film, but otherwise the presentation is near flawless. Though not exactly a disc to demonstrate one's home theater system, Geoffrey Unsworth's lush photography really comes alive on this DVD. The Dolby Digital English mono is fine if unimpressive. Paramount is really skimping otherwise with the disc; there are no alternate audio tracks and only optional English subtitles. Native French and Spanish speakers, among others, are out of luck. There are no Extra Features.
The World of Suzie Wong is a soaper but it's a good one thanks largely to the filmmakers' terrific travelogue-like use of scenic Hong Kong locales, and their expert artistry in the studio. The film has its share of Asian stereotypes; even the titles are in that chop suey font popular at the time, but even audiences not especially drawn to its romance will find much to enjoy.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.