|Vintage Pulp||Nov 10 2021|
Her story is more dream than nightmare, but that's why it's fiction.
The World of Suzie Wong was the definition of a polarizing film, generally liked by audiences, but often reviled by social observers. For the former group it was just entertainment, a risqué Cinderella fantasy. For the latter group, it was an exercise in cinematic irresponsibility. Few filmmakers have been interested in exploring the human trafficking, physical and psychological abuse, drugs, and destroyed futures that predominate prostitution, but that's no surprise—filmmaking is about moneymaking, and who'd normally go see a movie that was such a downer? While it's true that 2015's Tangerine was acclaimed, it was also shot on three iPhones. Its director has moved on to bigger budgets because he wants to make money too. So let's first of all accept Suzie Wong for what it is: a mainstream film exploring the idea of a rare type of prostitute—the one clearly destined for a better life.
The idea isn't actually so outlandish. Our personal experience has taught us that there are all kinds of hookers. In Brazil, some do it for two weeks bracketing Carnival and make more money than they do working their regular jobs the rest of the year. They don't consider themselves to be prostitutes. They consider themselves to be modern-minded and smart. When PSGP worked at Playboy he was aware of models (anecdotally) and porn actresses (definitely) who did it when they had money troubles. There are plenty of men who'll pay to sleep with his favorite centerfold or porn star, and the money she earns is all hers—none goes to an agent or grifter boyfriend. Models were occasionally invited to certain Middle Eastern oil states and were paid many thousands of dollars per week just to attend swank social occasions and be friendly. The friendliest—interpret that how you wish—would be welcome to stay for months and earn gifts, while the less friendly ones quickly would be shipped out. The point is there are all types.
So while people who hate Suzie Wong are correct that a depiction of prostitution that doesn't explore the typical reality reinforces a false narrative about what is a dirty and dangerous job, the movie is simply a piece of entertainment—and has the right to be. It's no more about real prostitution than Raiders of the Lost Ark is about real archaeology. You'll have to gloss over its imperialist ethnic snobbery too. But if you choose to cross the disbelief suspension bridge, it's a pretty entertaining flick, a drama about an American artist in Hong Kong played by William Holden who meets a local prostitute played by Nancy Kwan, asks her to model for him, and over the course of their increasingly fruitful artistic collaboration finds himself drawn to her. Kwan makes no secret of the fact that she immediately has feelings for Holden, but he resists—not forever, obviously. At that point the difficult question of whether they can actually make a life together—or should even try—is what the plot explores.
Suzie Wong's gimmick of a hooker's love completing a man who's lonely or adrift has been used in films such as Irma la Douce, Night Shift, and Pretty Woman, and audiences responded favorably because, at their core, all those films are romances. But there's more to Suzie Wong than just its sooty Cinderella aspects. At a time of still-rigid ideas about female purity, it asked male viewers to consider the possibility that the number of men a woman sleeps with is immaterial. So in that sense it's a forward thinking film—something usually forgotten by its critics. The source novel by Richard Mason is probably more nuanced, but we haven't read it. We do know, however, that he wrote it after staying at the Luk Kwok Hotel in Hong Kong, which was a brothel. So maybe he learned a little something that gave his book—and the film—a bit more verité than people generally suspect. When you include its great exteriors and sets, and Kwan herself in a starmaking role, the result is exotic, emotional, and at times uplifting. The World of Suzie Wong premiered in the U.S. today in 1960. See more promo images here and here.