American William Holden, as former architect turned struggling artist, Robert Lomax, a cynic who's "pushing forty," arrives in 1960 Hong Kong to make a valiant effort for his art. He's never been there and has no idea what to expect. On the ferry boat to Kowloon, he has a sort of altercation with the very young & attractive Nancy Kwan, who claims to be named "Mei Li," a very proper young lady about to enter into an arranged marriage set up by her wealthy father. Shortly before reluctantly introducing herself, she also almost manages to have Robert arrested by claiming he's a purse snatcher, which, judging from her mirthful expression, she does for the sheer entertainment value of the situation.
Robert, completely lost and not particularly wealthy, soon makes his way to the Wan Chai district, and, in his naivete as American abroad, fails to realize he's entered the main prostitution district in the city. His journey to the seedy hotel where he sets up shop as artist would be one of the highlights of the film: Robert's amazement and confusion at the bustling, vibrant city that has become his new home come across nicely. In many ways, the brilliant cinematography and camera work turn the city of Hong Kong itself into the unacknowledged third star of the film. However, it's a very different Hong Kong than now: very much a British colonial post, and, in segments of the neighborhoods, almost a Third World city.
Unfortunately, once Robert reaches the hotel, the movie loses much realism, and we've plainly entered a 1950's Hollywood set version of Hong Kong (although this happens to be a British film), complete with cartoonish prostitutes and Brit sailors on leave. It turns out that prim-and-proper Mei Li's none other than "very popular" Wan Chai "girl" Suzie Wong. There are some very dated scenes that follow, although actress Jacqui Chan's charming in an off kilter way as bar girl Gwennie Lee. Nancy Kwan vamps and spouts much pidgin English and says "for goodness' sake" about 500 times in a row. There's also a scene that made me cringe with a cheap dress getting ripped off Suzie by Robert. Fortunately, Robert, Suzie, and the camera eventually hit the streets of actual Hong Kong again.
Then, something odd happens with this film, bit by bit. The movie focuses more and more on Robert and Suzie as a couple, and, bit by bit, Suzie becomes less of a stereotypical bar girl and more and more of a human being who behaves unexpectedly. It turns out that she has developed a persona for herself, a very manipulative, successful one, that's given her an edge in a very harsh city for abandoned young women. She has an active fantasy life, that's enabled her to separate herself psychologically from the more sordid aspects of what she's done in order to survive. Robert too, becomes less and less Joe Gillis, Jr. (for those of you who've seen Holden in SUNSET BLVD. from a decade earlier), a one-note, crabby cynic with a paternalistic attitude towards Suzie, and more and more a human being who's in love. He shows this most plainly when he finds out that Suzie has an infant son, and Robert accepts little Winston affectionately as his own. In a complex way, Suzie, and also little Winston, act as muses for Robert, and his own art becomes more inspired and interesting because of them. Suzie also benefits from her love for Robert and shows some real emotion for him rather than her usual play acting.
This is where I find the movie interesting, as it depicts, much more realistically than one might expect in 1960, the dimensions of a biracial, bicultural couple's life together. Although Robert has made contact with the British elite in the city and needs them for patronage for his art, he's never really comfortable with them or their patronizing, mildly racist way of observing the Chinese. Kay O'Neill (actress Sylvia Syms), the daughter of a well-placed British banker, falls for Robert, but he doesn't really feel any emotion for her as he does for Suzie. Of course, she can't believe Robert would really prefer Suzie to her. When he announces he's thinking of marrying Suzie, Kay's father says that, of course, he could never hire someone in those circumstances. The rest of the Brits more talk around Suzie than to her whenever she's present. Likewise, most of the Chinese, while polite with Robert, don't know quite what to make of him, either, and he seems to do better either with Suzie as intermediary or because her friends help him along. It's obvious too that sometimes cultural miscues cause Suzie and Robert to misunderstand one another. This leads to the beginning of the climax of the film, which is somewhat tragic.
No doubt, this has been a controversial film. In the past, many Asian-American studies professors seemed to grow livid at the mention of it. This was supposed to be the ne plus ultra (or maybe the nadir, instead) for stereotypical portrayals of all Asian women as submissive little China doll characters or bar girls. There is some of that there (although much less than in most other 1950's-early 1960's American films), but, as I'd noted, the interesting thing's how the stereotype turns out to be a fake, something created for the advantage (if that's the word) of the heroine for relating to foreigners. It's also interesting how the genuine romance, one based on a sort of mutual respect between Robert and Suzie, becomes more important. Most interesting of all's the portrayal (that mostly rings true) of a biracial, bicultural romance between two human beings. As someone involved in such a relationship for many years, I found myself giving the film an extra star for this "rightness" alone. Finally, both Holden and Kwan are good in their roles and the way their characters interact. I just couldn't see France Nuyen and William Shatner (from the stage play version) evoking the same level of emotion and empathy for Suzie and Robert. It's even more remarkable that Kwan was only in her early twenties when she portrayed Suzie.
Plus, if nothing else, this movie's a terrific time capsule/travelogue of Hong Kong, as it was never so brilliantly captured elsewhere on screen in that era.