Pre-Bruce Lee (and, indeed, sadly post-), it was rare for Asian performers to headline films produced in the western world and rarer still for them to be women. Nevertheless, 1960’s The World of Suzie Wong features Nancy Kwan in a fantastic role as the titular Hong Kong native — who runs into Robert Lomax (big box-office draw William Holden) on the iconic Star Ferry and strikes up an antagonistic flirtation that, over time, becomes a romance.
Holden and Kwan have dynamite chemistry, and while it is fun to see them go at it, there is sincerity and humanity in both performances that drives the film’s success. Kwan’s role is also surprisingly well-written (though certainly not without issues). The colourised filming of 1960s Hong Kong is great, too, with some stunning location shooting that really puts you in the moment and, from a historical perspective, proves fascinating. It’s a shame, then, that the film otherwise treads into very stereotypical portrayal of Chinese people (and Asian people as a whole). It’s particularly cringe-worthy when Suzie wears an English dress to impress Lomax only for him to give her a speech about how he loves her for being an authentic Chinese woman and how she should wear her cheongsam instead. Stack onto those colonial attitudes of the time, and Suzie Wong proves to very much be a picture of its time.
Imprint’s Blu-ray release contains decent extras, including a new audio commentary by film historians Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo, as well as a video essay by Elissa Rose on the fashion of the film. Kwan gets her own feature-length documentary from 2010 as well, which is great; she’s such a standout in this film, and it’s nice to see her get her comprehensive due.
Although a film somewhat progressive for its time (and viewed as such), Suzie Wong still makes for uncomfortable viewing by modern standards. To Imprint’s credit, the label has also included the documentary Hollywood Chinese to place this film in its historical context and educate about depictions of Chinese characters and the experiences of Chinese actors in Hollywood. This solid documentary highlights much of Hollywood’s racism toward and discrimination against Chinese actors. My only complaint is that I’d have loved a version looking at the decade in Hollywood since it was made and one with more of a budget to delve deeper and interview actors. (If you enjoy the documentary, I also recommend purchasing the book of the same name.)
Fans of The World of Suzie Wong will likely know if they want this package from the outset. Given content that’s otherwise problematic, it’s best enjoyed through the context of a critical and historical eye.