“The World of Suzie Wong” is a film that is no less problematic. While racism and sexism in older films are usually rationalized (if not excused) by historical context. Most viewers today will balk at scenes in Suzie Wong where Suzie is beaten up, blames it on the wrong man, and then brags about it to her girlfriends. And Asian Americans will cringe at her broken English and lack of conscience. But the film celebrates “American” equality even as its relationships undermine it. The World of Suzie Wong is so neat and complete, that it almost justifies imperialism in the name of love. The film that tells a love story between an American artist and a Hong Kong prostitute who overcome pride and prejudice and start a new stage of life. The story is set in Hong Kong in the late fifties of the last century. Robert Lomax is a middle-aged American architect tired of his routine, he takes a year off traveling to Hong Kong to pursue his dream of being an artist. He encounters an attractive girl (Suzie Wong) on Hong Kong’s Star Ferry to Kowloon, who pretends herself as coming from a wealthy family, then disappears mysteriously into the crowd. Robert’s love to Suzie, not only express the love of Oriental beauty, but also express the imagination of Western imperial expansion: an exotic woman occupies symbol equated with possession of an exotic land, through such possession, the West completed the re-positioning. The film also tries to capture the exotic beauty of the old-time Hong Kong. Long before it became the modern commercial centre it is today. Star Ferry, Central, Victoria Harbor, Sampans, rickshaw, floating restaurant, huts, hillside shantytowns, joss-sticks burning ritual all breathes the smells of the Orient. The film depicts a racial tension between Westerners and Chinese and a strong struggle of elite and poor. Suzie wears a western dress to lift up her status and fears accepting Robert’s proposal of marriage due to her class of prostitute, a bottom class in the society then. The most interesting and unique feature of the character of Suzie Wong is that she is not a common whore, lacking in self-respect. She is pragmatic but also a dreamer, a person with her own principles and character. For example, she does not sleep around. She is the classic embodiment of the person with a heart of gold. She gives birth to a child whose father has abandoned her. Rather than give up the child to the father, she hides it. The film also beautifies her character. She is hardly regarded with jaundices eyes. On the contrary, she appears a most lively and energetic creature. The World of Suzie Wong is best described as a melodramatic travelogue. Its more memorable touches poke a sly, satiric dig at the attitude of the British colonial ruling class in the territory. For instance, the character of the English businessman who falls in love with Suzie Wong is portrayed as a weak, a drunkard and womanizer but yet is one unwilling to “lose face.” The surroundings of Suzie’s world are characterized by a great gap between poverty and riches. It is a multi-coloured but pestilential world, full of crises (poverty, the crowds, and the natural and human disasters waiting to befall). The film captures the colorful teeming streets of a long-vanished Hong Kong, before it became the gleaming commercial capital it is today. The story line is stock Hollywood: boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back-through-tragic-twist-of-fate. But, set in the “exotic Orient,” it becomes an imperialist trope. Suzie is the native waif in need of rescue (if only from herself), and while Kwan’s considerable screen presence manifests as both fiery defiance and knowing guile, Suzie never completely rises above an annoying petulance. Brusque, headstrong Robert represents upstanding morality. Unlike his British counterparts in colonial Hong Kong, he sees and treats the Chinese as “real people.” For example, in one infamous scene, Robert takes Suzie out to dinner at a posh club for expats. Unable to read the menu, Suzie points to an item that turns out to be salad dressing. When the snooty waiter questions her choice, Robert saves her from embarrassment by saying, “Make that two.” Ignoring his Anglo peers’ castigating glances and snide comments, he continues to barrel his way through awkward situations with “American” moxie and disregard for convention. Comparing his values with the supercilious, old-World racism of the British, the film posits Yankee imperialism as the “good” kind. But, in one infamous scene, this idealism reveals the brutal hypocrisy at its core. When her British sugar daddy buys her some expensive Western-style clothes, Suzie visits Robert to show off her new finery. Looking her up and down, he calls her a “cheap European streetwalker” and flies into a righteous rage. In a symbolic rape, he forcibly strips her down to bra and slip, throws her new clothes out the window, and leaves her sobbing on the bed. By way of explanation, he asserts that she doesn’t need “all that tinsel.” What he really means is that her appearance should adhere to his image of the authentic Chinese woman. Robert is portrayed as the quintessential American maverick — rugged, independent and bull-headed, the only “real man” among the effete Brits and childlike Chinese. The appeal of the stoic American rescuer of helpless Asian women is still powerful. In other words, there’s no need to convince us of Suzie’s love for Robert. The pervasive mythology of American imperialism provides more than enough proof. The film offers uncritical viewers both an escape from everyday reality and a sense of moral superiority. Encouraged to identify with Robert, they are at once immersed in, but not a part of, the exotic surroundings. From this privileged distance, it’s easy to see American imperialism as a love story. All kinds of abuses are perpetrated and glossed over in the name of love. But The World of Suzie Wong, despite its familiar story and seductive packaging, never quite escapes the glaring contradiction between its professed egalitarianism and the obvious inequalities it so blithely reproduces.
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