The World of Suzie Wong (Richard Quine, 1960) 🇺🇸
When Robert Lomax steps off the Star Ferry onto the soil of Hong Kong for the first time, the thought never enters his head that the island will become his chosen home. It is, after all, hard to think about making a home for yourself when you live in a “borrowed place on borrowed time”.
William Holden plays a sensible, 40-something architect who has come to exercise his talents as a painter in the turbulent Hong Kong of the 1960s. He has given himself a year. He’ll end up spending the rest of his life there. The seductive creature on the poster, revealing her curves on the spiral staircase, is the reason why. Suzie Wong enters the scene and sweeps us into her multifaceted world.
She is the star of the iconic Nam Kok Hotel, where a rather unusual guest is staying, renting a room for a whole month rather than just a day. Although he is regularly disturbed by drunken sailors intruding on him as they open the wrong door, the budding artist is captivated by the stunning views from his roof terrace over the bay of Hong Kong. Young Suzie’s magnificent figure, shown off to advantage in her “qipao”, soon becomes his main source of inspiration as she poses for him during modelling sessions when the bounds of propriety are never overstepped. For although she is a prostitute, she loudly proclaims her “virginity”, worried that she’ll be taken for a “dirty street girl”, as she puts it.
Nancy Kwan provides a wonderful portrayal of this embodiment of Asian beauty, a portrayal where East meets West, risking scandalising the self-righteous, contemptuous Brits. Robert is the only foreigner to penetrate (literally and figuratively!) the “World of Suzie Wong”. Despite the fact that the romance unfolds in a friendly brothel, we are not shown a single love scene. The only time there is a glimpse of onscreen flesh is when Robert rips off Suzie’s gown, criticising her for dressing as a European woman. Because he desires her as a Chinese woman, whose beauty reaches a climax when he gets her to pose as the former Empress of China. The reverse is also true when he is out and Suzie shows off his Western, necessarily costly, clothes to her enraptured, admiring, giggling colleagues. “For goodness sake”, as she likes to keep saying, if only this “kind-hearted man” could become her permanent lover! Her pretty little face, stunning figure (especially curvaceous given Nancy Kwan’s background as a dancer), impertinence and outbursts of blatant lies in pidgin English make her as insufferable as she is irresistible. Kay, on the other hand, so English and so blonde, has no effect on Robert despite her advances and success in selling his paintings. Suzie has become his exclusive muse, and he is driven wild when she disappears yet again.
She is actually going to rescue her baby son, victim of a landslide. Hong Kong, glittering and gleaming under its neon lights, a place of prosperity teeming with luxury restaurants, hides away its poverty on the hillsides scattered with makeshift homes. We find Suzie there in tears, more beautiful than ever with no make-up on and her hair soaking wet: her child has been killed by the torrents of mud.
The mask has fallen and we see the other side of the city, every bit as fascinating. The real Suzie no longer fears losing face. She is, however, equally at ease in her role as a devoted mother and as a loving partner, showing Robert the secrets of an endlessly shifting world. Although the colourful Chinese lanterns at the Nam Kok Hotel maintain the illusion, these outdoor scenes, superbly filmed by Richard Quine, create a striking impression of reality: we lose our balance as we step over the sampans, hold our noses as we pass stands packed with dried fish, feel our heads spin as we climb precipitous flights of steps, and get our energy back by sipping on turtle soup (far tastier than the vinaigrette Suzie ordered at the elegant Wanchai restaurant!). It's fun trying to pick out what has survived today – a sadly difficult game, other than the iconic green and white Star Ferry which still sails back and forth just as it always did.
I am feeling inconsolably nostalgic for this city, Fan Ho’s Hong Kong, and it is quite possible that one of the reasons that led me to live there for a while is this exceedingly romantic film. If I had to retain one image of the city, it would be a very emotional choice – I would choose the image proffered by this French poster, beautifully immortalising as it does a lost world, the “World of Suzie Wong”.
Trivia: Sylvia Syms also had a principal role in Ferry to Hong Kong, another movie taking place in Hong Kong. And William Holden? He starred in “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (filmed on location in Hong Kong) and Satan Never Sleeps. The latter movie's lead actress was France Nuyen, the original Suzie Wong.
Check out the French version of this article.