To whom it may concern…
Integrating into an essentially alien society or culture is a process which demands that one should not only become familiar and comfortable with the prevailing mores and customs but, and this is arguably an even greater challenge, also reassess oneself. This complete awakening, a combination of introspection and extrospection acts as a powerful dramatic hook. It lies at the heart of The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and applies particularly to William Holden’s stranger in a strange land. However, the setting in colonial era Hong Kong and that curious Eurasian atmosphere it generates, coupled with its examination of the demimonde that flourished in the bars and dance clubs of the city by night, means that it has an application for Nancy Kwan’s title character too. All of this ties in with the quest for fulfillment, a theme that figures prominently in Strangers When We Meet, the other Richard Quine directed movie released that year.
It all starts in a lighthearted, playful way, with Robert Lomax (William Holden) sparring and flirting with the Chinese girl he encounters on the boat ride into Hong Kong. The mood alternates between coy and farcical and is buoyed along by the irrepressible optimism and positivity that films of the era seemed able to tap into without ever needing to break sweat. She is Suzie Wong (Nancy Kwan), a veteran of the waterfront bars despite her youth, although Lomax is not initially aware of this, having seen no reason to doubt her claims of coming from a wealthy and decorous background. Both of these characters are at heart dreamers, one spinning a yarn for the sheer fun of it, just to indulge her fantasy harmlessly in the company of a stranger she is unlikely ever to meet again, while the other harbors hopes of transforming his desire into something real – I guess this contrasting perspective might, in a nutshell, be seen as defining the nature of dreams in youth and maturity. Lomax has come east to make a fresh start, and a radical one at that. He has grown weary of life as an architect and has decided to have one last shot at making it as an artist, giving himself in the region of a year, or until his money runs out, to either realize this ambition or face up to the fact it is not to be.
Suzie (Nancy Kwan), on the other hand, is motivated, superficially anyway, by the kind of ephemeral thrill-seeking, bordering on hedonism, that is the preserve of the young. Yet these flights of fancy really only exist on the surface, and as the movie progresses it becomes apparent that there is a depth of longing within her too, that need for emotional stability and security which is innate to every person. In her case it is perhaps even stronger due to her own particular personal circumstances. So, there are quite profound themes and issues being explored and, despite the occasional but well integrated foray into lighter areas, they gradually build and grow in intensity, revealing themselves in an almost kaleidoscopic manner with tones and shades of meaning and motivation forever shifting or altering the perspective of both the characters on the screen and that of the viewers of the drama.
If fulfillment is the bedrock of the story then rediscovery represents the path which should be taken. Suzie is Robert’s inspiration in every sense, the muse who forms the basis of his art and also the person who opens up that route back to a fulfilled life. While it’s not explicitly stated in the script, although I feel there are oblique hints, the journey undertaken by Robert Lomax to such an alien environment, tossing aside what one might assume would have been a successful career to try to make a fresh start as a painter, is suggestive of some trauma in his life. His initial rejection of any kind of commitment – his claim that it is basically the result of his straitened finances is only half-credible, I think – indicates a man who is in retreat from personal relationships.
If his art is inspired by Suzie, then I reckon it is fair to say his reconnecting with life through that art is similarly achieved. At one point she tells him that he will die inside without his art, that it both sustains and defines him. Then later Kay (Sylvia Syms), the well-to-do banker’s daughter who finds herself by turns jealous and besotted, suggests that if he never painted Suzie again he wouldn’t die. It is at this moment that he becomes completely aware of himself and his situation. He is now conscious of the fact that his whole existence has become bound up with Suzie – his art, his love, his life itself are essentially one and the same. If one aspect or ingredient is absent or denied, then he can never attain fulfillment. So, love, art and life are inextricably linked for Robert Lomax, with no one part functioning properly without the other. And it is the unlikely figure of Suzie who acts as the gravitational hub for all of these elements.
Richard Quine may have come on board as a replacement for Jean Negulesco, but this notion of fulfillment earned through an imperfect love underpinned Strangers When We Meet and thus I can’t help wondering whether the theme didn’t have some resonance for the director. The movie does appear to have been strongly influenced by producer Ray Stark and writer John Patrick as much as anyone yet the mere fact Quine occupied the director’s chair for two films released in the same year which were both so markedly informed by this theme is certainly intriguing. I would like to mention too that I was struck by the fact that both movies present emotional crescendos played out in the midst of intense rainstorms. Quine made only a handful of dramatic movies overall, which I think is a pity as he did display an affinity for this type of material, although that should by no means be taken as a criticism or dismissal of the highly entertaining comedies and satires he is more commonly associated with. As with Strangers When We Meet, George Duning contributes another lush and evocative score and Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography makes the most of the Hong Kong locations as well as the beautifully lit interiors.
Watching movies featuring William Holden never disappoints, the man could be tough or sardonic, flippant or intense, but whatever the part he consistently brought a sense of a real person to his roles. The part of Robert Lomax has a number of dimensions, jauntiness, adventurousness, humility, a hint of desperation and, crucially, a solid core of compassion. Holden had become such an accomplished performer by this stage that he could convey all of this smoothly and convincingly. Nancy Kwan was making her screen debut in the title role and took the place of France Nuyen, who had been originally cast and then fired by the producer. She brings a beguiling freshness to the role, frank and energetic throughout, and coping well with the powerful and dramatic moments. Michael Wilding comes across as something of a caricature of an Englishman abroad; it’s amusing enough in its way, but I’ve always thought there was a touch of the artificial to many of his performances. Both Laurence Naismith and the recently deceased Sylvia Syms offer good support.
The World of Suzie Wong ought to be easy enough to track down on DVD and it has also been released on Blu-ray by Imprint in Australia. Personally, I feel it has a lot going for it; it looks squarely and unflinchingly at such matters as prostitution and casual racism yet never patronizes nor loses sight of that alluring and elusive central theme, and of course Nancy Kwan is enchanting throughout. I think it is a really great movie.