Judge Bill Treadway shows his sensitive side with this review of a classic romantic drama.
The world has only just begun.
Robert Lomax (William Holden, Network) is an architect who has just arrived in Hong Kong. With aspirations to become a famous artist, he has decided to take a leave of absence from his job as draftsman and make a serious try at painting full time. After an altercation with a snob on the ferry, he checks into the Nam Kok Hotel. Soon he discovers that the hotel is a hot spot for Chinese prostitutes and their johns. He also discovers that the snob he encountered earlier is in fact a popular prostitute named Suzie Wong (Nancy Kwan, Fate is the Hunter). Lomax decides to use Suzie as a model for several paintings. They manage to form a friendship, but it becomes complicated when they fall in love.
I am glad that The World of Suzie Wong was made in 1960. Today, it could no longer be made with traditional methods. A serious interracial romance would be deemed uncommercial despite the fact that such hookups still occur today. The location filming in China would be nixed in favor of Canada, which has more favorable financial conditions for studios. The relatively downbeat ending would be jettisoned in favor of the typical happy ending. Also, most contemporary romances are mired in immature gross-out comedy, so the idea that anyone would want a serious romantic film would have the executives laughing hysterically.
Interracial romances are not uncommon in cinematic history. Some of the more memorable films dealing with the subject include Broken Blossoms (1919), Mr. Wu (1927), and The Lover (1992). However, those films dealt with the topic as taboo. The nice thing about The World of Suzie Wong is that the view of interracial romance is in sharp contrast to most previous screen treatments of the theme. Joshua Logan's Sayonara had set the precedent in 1957 for its treatment of interracial romance as a natural occurrence that is perfectly acceptable. Screenwriter John Patrick, working from a Broadway play by Paul Osborn in addition to the source novel by Richard Mason, seizes this theme and runs with it. What I appreciated most about Patrick's screenplay is his willingness to take his time telling the story. He lets the romance build slowly but surely to its final destination. Today, most contemporary romances would have the couple in bed before the end of the second reel. By taking it slowly, this film allows us to see how a relationship can gestate over time, much like a fetus in the womb.
Producer Ray Stark and director Richard Quine made the appropriate decision to shoot on location in Hong Kong. Recreating Hong Kong in another country would have seriously diminished this film's impact. Hong Kong is treated as a character in itself, and the stunning location footage gives us a real feel for life in a foreign country.
The film itself is an overwhelmingly emotional film. It earns the viewer's emotion honestly, without resorting to overly sentimental contrivances. There are hilarious moments involving the lies Suzie tells to gain the respect of her prostitute pals and her drunken suitor, Ben (Michael Wilding, Stage Fright). There are tender moments of romance, particularly in the final third of the picture. Yes, the film has a downbeat ending, which I will not reveal except to say that it is a shocker that will have many in the audience weeping heavily. (I must be honest and admit that I did cry.) Yet there is a glimmer of hope so that the ending doesn't put a damper on the whole proceedings.
The performances are just perfect in The World of Suzie Wong. William Holden gives one of his very best performances. There is something about a romantic theme that tends to bring out the best in him. His trademark cynicism and dignity are there, but this genre brings out sweetness and charm as well. That helps make the character likable and aids in selling this offbeat romance. Nancy Kwan makes her acting debut in this film and is simply magnificent. Her performance hits all the right notes, which is all the more amazing considering she was a novice in the acting business. She exhibits a wide range of emotions, alternating toughness, tenderness, sympathy, and airiness, sometimes in equal measure. We really get to know this character and feel for her, which is an accomplishment. The supporting cast is also excellent, ranging from Michael Wilding's sharp comedy relief to Sylvia Sims's conniving rival for Holden's affections.
Paramount offers The World of Suzie Wong in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The studio has done a first-class restoration on this film. I have never seen it look this sharp before. VHS copies had a washed-out, hazy look that seriously diminished the visual beauty of the film. Paramount has given the visuals a much-needed color correction. The result is the blindingly gorgeous hues associated with traditional Technicolor. There are some imperfections in the print, such as light grain and a few random specks; however, those imperfections only appear here and there, so they do not deter from the overall solid transfer.
Audio is the standard Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track found on most barebones releases. It's a good sound mix, especially for a barebones disc. The sound is for the most part clean, without any serious defects. Dialogue is easily understood, and the music comes through without a hitch.
Paramount has made The World of Suzie Wong a barebones affair. Not even the original theatrical trailer is included, which is a shame because a part of me was itching to know how this film was originally marketed to audiences. Despite the lack of extras, however, The World of Suzie Wong is a wonderful emotional experience. The much-improved video transfer should make fans of this picture eager to purchase the disc.
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