Judge William Lee's emails may have blank subject lines, but his body is filled with love.
Bridging the cultural divide, a story of love, loss and life.
Nancy Kwan (Fate is the Hunter), born in 1939 to a British-Chinese couple, shot to superstardom after debuting in The World of Suzie Wong in 1960, followed by the successful Flower Drum Song in 1961. Prior to then, and even through the 1960s, Hollywood rarely cast Asian actors in prominent Asian roles, using Caucasian talents like Paul Muni, Mickey Rooney, Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Jennifer Jones in "yellow-face" instead. Kwan's success is regarded as the breakthrough moment for Asian representation in Hollywood movies but her own career would never again reach the heights of her first two roles. Brian Jamieson's slightly unconventional documentary, To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey tells the story of Kwan's life largely in her own words.
In contemporary scenes, we see Kwan wandering through Cambodia's ancient Angkor Wat temples and attending a premiere in Hong Kong. The reasons for her personal visit to Cambodia are revealed later on in the film, while her appearance in Hong Kong supports the ballet production based on The World of Suzie Wong. Jamieson's camera is enamored by Kwan and it waits ever so patiently to capture her reaction and her next words. At times, this feels uncomfortable as staring at her in the darkened theater of the ballet performance feels a bit intrusive. Other times, it feels like we are playing the part of an overly attentive fan. Fortunately, Kwan's almost regal presence sustains the attention and it's easy to understand how audiences fell in love with her.
The greatest value of To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey is the telling of the history of Asian representation in the movies and capturing comments from such a key player. The film also talks to France Nuyen (South Pacific), who was already an established stage and screen star when Kwan replaced her for the Suzie Wong film part. Jamieson taps many of Kwan's childhood friends and family friends for comments to help paint the picture of his subject while industry peers, including producer Edward Feldman and actors Vivian Wu (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) and Joan Chen (1911), give testimonials to her impact and influence.
There is a good assortment of still photos and film clips used in the film. Kwan's fans will especially enjoy seeing her screen tests, which undeniably show how much the camera loved her even as an untrained actor. The film chronicles Kwan's life and career in a linear fashion and employs her as the narrator of her story. Her first-hand account of growing up with her divorced Chinese father, ballet training in English in her youth, and her career in film and television sounds very generous and honest. The rhythm of her speech and her choice of words can make it sound like she's reading from a script but I think it's just her unique voice that helped establish such a memorable on screen persona.
An extended later section concerns the death of her son Bernie. Much of the interview time around Cambodia is spent talking about this tragedy as well. The portrait of Bernie's life is respectfully done and poignantly tells how he lived his life with vigor, honor and dignity to the end. However, Jamieson's filmmaking choices, mildly but increasing distracting throughout, become ham-fisted at the conclusion of this section.
The film would be improved with a bit of distance from its subject. Jamieson seems to want to be in the same contemplative headspace as Kwan but the regular use of slow-motion footage of Angkor Wat feels obvious and cheap rather than meditative. There are also a couple of instances when unmotivated cuts to a second camera during the interviews leave Kwan talking to thin air. This is a style inspired by over-edited reality television but it feels out of place here. The repeated returns to the ballet performance also hinder the film's momentum. Judging only from what we see in this movie, the ballet looks kind of terrible. By constantly returning to it and waiting for Kwan's reaction, the film seems to suggest that Kwan is still clinging to the fame she acquired from her first role more than 50 years ago. Hearing Kwan talk about her life, this is definitely not the case and this wrong and unintentional statement is the unfortunately byproduct of directorial misjudgment.
Even though it falls short of the technical promises on the back of the box, the film is still decently presented in a 1.77:1 anamorphic transfer. The picture is clean throughout and the use of movie clips and still photos looks quite good. The box says the film was mastered in high definition but the benefits of such aren't evidenced in this standard def DVD. The interviews look a little soft and colors are slightly on the dull side while black levels are shallow. The surround mix listed on the box isn't on this disc but the stereo presentation sounds very good with clear dialogue being the most important element in this documentary. A trailer is the only extra included on the disc.
Tighter editing, more probing questions and critical analysis of Kwan's career would have improved this film. Of course, no film of a person's life can be an exhaustive treatment, and To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey is a fitting and respectful portrait of its subject that will satisfy her fans and be useful for those interested in the history of Hollywood's ethnic casting behavior. Spending time with this remarkable woman is a treat and it doesn't take long to fall under her spell. To find its audience, the film's marketers really could have tried harder for a catchier title.
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