China seems to live up to the axiom that the only constant is change. 1949 brought a big change indeed; but a political ideology hooked to the notion of “continuous revolution” will send any ship of state on a rudderless course. There were almost immediate countervailing forces put in motion, especially from the USA when Mao deployed countless forces in support of North Korea.
Hollywood, now well practiced from WWII in the propaganda value of cinema did, as it often did, find it politically expedient and/or financially opportunistic, to follow suit. With the USSR sliding from WWII ally to Cold War adversary, the addition of China to the global partition between putative democracies and Asian autocracies (never mind all that nonsense about their being “republics”), communism took over as the new dramatic bugaboo from those now vanquished monarchies of bellicosity, ineptitude and insensitivity to the plight of the masses. And chief among the American-hero cast would be the man who defended his country time and again from studio back lots far from the real combat action he portrayed: John Wayne.
Actually Wayne was not supposed to be the male lead in Blood Alley (1955), another name for the Formosa Strait and a dangerous run from Communist China down to Hong Kong; but other leads did not work out and Wayne, through his own production company, had a stake in the project and stepped up for another celluloid defense of the good, true and beautiful. He plays Tom Wilder, escapee from a Communist prison who becomes captain of a low-draft, paddle-wheel ferry loaded with 189 Chinese villagers who want out of Communist China and are willing to risk the dangerous run from Amoy down to Hong Kong. Along for the ride is Cathy Grainger (Lauren Bacall) as the daughter of a doctor killed by the Communists. She had to convince a reluctant Wilder to take the job and, despite their uneasy relationship once aboard we somehow know that things will get romantic between them.
The cast is a mixture of real Chinese and “yellowfaces.” Surprisingly, and almost laughably, buxom Swedish actress Anita Eckberg is made up as a Chinese (Wei Ling), apparently to honor the strange tradition of Scandinavians playing Asians. It is a perilous three-hundred miles to the haven of Hong Kong harbor, and enroute is a lot of overwrought melodramatics. A pro-Communist family is taken along so that their children wouldn’t be executed along with them for allowing the boat to escape. Old Feng (Berry Kroeger), who plots to kill Wilder, is portrayed as corpulent and vile, while the anti-communists villagers are all very likeable. Also, the depiction of Cathy’s maid Susu (Joy Kim), forced to speak pidgin dialogue that is mimicked by Wayne and Bacall a c couple of times is an unfortunate repetition of a stereotype.
The movie ends rather predictably; after surviving a mutiny of sorts and Communist gunboat attacks, the ferry limps into Victoria harbor with the assistance of stock footage of warships since the movie was shot entirely in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River Delta area and other locations in California.
Fear of incarceration in Communist Chinese prisons must have been a prime feature of the “red scare.” It comes up again in Soldier of Fortune (1955), directed perhaps as a form of ideological contrition by Edward Dmytryk, and starring an aging Clark Gable as American trader/mercenary Hank Lee, and Susan Hayward as Mrs. Jane Hoyt, whose photojournalist husband (Gene Barry) is imprisoned by the “commies” somewhere up the Pearl River. Not untypical of this genre the British are made fun of (in this case for not being able to retrieve Hoyt), so dashing Hank Lee who resides in a mansion on the Peak and has a private junk-gunboat has to be called into the rather lame plot by getting him to fall for Mrs. Hoyt with the assistance of a Chinese boy/cupid who lives with Lee.
The only redeeming elements (other than the personal one for Dmytryk) are the B-roll shots of the real Hong Kong in the 1950s and the interiors of the Peninsula, but the story quickly loses plausibility with gratuitous Falstaffian interludes of bar fights in Kowloon, the easy rescue of Mr. Hoyt who with seeming gratitude turns his wife over to Mr. Lee. Hayward never set foot in the Crown Colony owing to personal problems and so was process-screened or doubled into all her scenes. Hollywood was clearly not going to take down the Chinese communists with this sort of cinema.
But the threat of international communism would become the dominant factors in American foreign policy for the next four decades with a commensurate influence upon film and popular literature. So Hollywood tried again, the same year, with Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,although the anti-communist theme is softened by the star-crossed romance of the autobiographical Eurasian Han Su-yin. Dr. Han is played by Jennifer Jones, whose bi-racial heart is captured by journalist Mark Eliot (William Holden). Hong Kong is being flooded with refugees fleeing the communist mainland, war rages in Korea and Mark and Su-yin fall in love. The British are snobby and racist about he romance, the Chinese disapproving, but the world is changing fast and American audiences were rooting for the couple that would meet on a hillside above the old Foreign Correspondent’s Club that served as Dr. Han’s hospital in the film. With the added sweeping panoramas of the harbor and an Academy Award winning title song playing over it all, it seemed that inter-racial, cross-cultural, love in a time of war and stubborn social obstacles should find its splendor. But Han Su-yin’s biography coincides neatly with historical prejudices against such romantic alliances and Mark is dispatched while on assignment to Korea leaving Dr. Han alone on the hill with the music.
The Enduring Fantasy
This result of East-West romances is somewhat prefigured in Hong Kong’s history (although antedated more ubiquitously) in Tai Pan (1986), a disappointing cinematic version of James Clavell’s novel of the founding of the British Crown Colony in 1841, a story about colonialism at its most arrogant and insensitive worst that is wrapped around what has become either a classic or clichéd sub-narrative about East-West love affairs. Despite the eponymous Dirk Struan’s (Brian Browne) affinity for Chinese culture (not difficult to accept given that his “woman/slave” May-May is played by Joan Chen) the lovers end up solving race problem of both cultures by dying in a typhoon.. But Clavell didn’t have to invent that “problem,” or its “solution.” It has been around since Paris and Helen of Troy, through Samson and Delilah, to Fletcher Christian and Miamiti, Madame Butterfly and Lt. Cable and Leah in South Pacific; the male soldier/adventurer/traveler smitten by the exotic, forbidden female fruit of another place and culture, the bane of the romantic soul. Very often they are male literary characters who are picaresque, cynical, emotionally-wounded, and estranged from their own culture to be both in quest of some new or revised identity, and who, if they were not openly seeking exotic romantic attachments, are susceptible to them. They possess the roguish, independent personalities that allow them to lift a veil, challenge a taboo, or push through a beaded curtain into an alien culture. Ian Buruma writes that, “It is the mark of the romantic that he or she seeks the unreal. The point of going East is not to find oneself, as so many hippie seekers thought, but to get rid of oneself—or at least those aspects of oneself one does not like.”
If the rule is that cinematic East-West romances must end in failure, then there ought to be an exception to prove it. Titled after the 1955 Richard Mason novel, The World of Suzie Wong, 1960 Paramount version of the love affair of an American painter and a Hong Kong prostitute challenges stereotype. Suzie Wong is Hong Kong’s gift to the gallery of prostitutes with a golden heart such as Irma La Douce, Ilya, Melina Mercouri’s Ilya of Never on Sunday, Aldona, inMan of La Mancha, Fantine in Les Miserables, Mighty Aphrodite, and many others. The premise of the foreign male (Robert Lomax played by William Holden) smitten by the exotic locale and mysterious female beauty (Suzie Wong, Nancy Kwan) is also a familiar theme. But in an ambiguous departure from the common tragic dénouement this improbable couple— an illiterate Chinese bar girl and a Western male twice her age, been snobby and censorious Hong Kong of the 1950s—at movies and walk off into the sunset leaving the viewer to wonder whether such a relationship could possibly survive the next encounter with one of Susie’s erstwhile clients.
Despite the poor odds the East-West romantic syndrome endures. John, the nostalgic British journalist in Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box (1997), set on the eve of the day of the Hong Kong “handover,” not only pines for the good old colonial days of Hong Kong, but for the good old prostitutes. Vivian (Going Li) has a higher status clientele than Suzie’s sailors, even wealthy Chinese men. In the swirl of allegiances brought about by the 1997 handover, she seems to prefer the security of a Hong Kong businessman with good connections up North to the romantic embraces of an English journo whose fatal ill-health is metaphor for the demise of the century and a half Crown Colony. Being jilted by the woman he loves and the city he loves is as emotionally fatal for John as the leukemia he is about to die of. But even without the momentous politics such romances are up against a strong tradition.
© 2014, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 5.7.2014)