Nancy Kwan was hot.
She's in her 70s now and still very beautiful, but when she started her film career at 20 years old, playing a prostitute in The World Of Suzy Wong, her hotness positively sizzled off the screen. Same thing in her next movie, the Flower Drum Song, when she pranced around in front of mirrors singing "I Enjoy Being a Girl."
It was the kind of hot that mesmerized men. Brian Jamieson was a teenager when he first saw Suzy Wong and "Like lots of other 18-year-old guys, I fell in love with her."
Jamieson worked at Warner Brothers for many years producing DVD packages. He's the guy responsible for getting local filmmaker Kirby Warnock's lovely little documentary Return to Giant included on the special edition package of Giant. In 2006 he underwrote the 50th anniversary celebration bash of the movie that Kirby threw in Marfa, where it was filmed.
Jamieson left Warner Brothers and began pursuing his own dream of being a filmmaker, and the Kirby connection is how he came to be at the Texas Theater last night, screening the documentary he produced about Nancy Kwan, To Whom It May Concern--Ka Shen's Journey. Too bad a documentary about a not-quite-obscure movie star couldn't compete with the NBA playoffs; maybe 25 people turned up for the screening. (Will the Texas Theater make it? I'm rooting for it but worried. I'll do my part; to start, I'm definitely on board for My Perestroika tomorrow afternoon. The trailer was tantalizing.)
Kwan, born to a British mother and Chinese father, wanted to be a ballerina but ultimately broke ground in Hollywood as an actress of Asian descent starring in a major motion picture. Although Anna May Wong starred in early silent films, subsequent war-related anti-Asian sentiment and miscegenation laws then relegated Asians to supporting roles, and Caucasians put on makeup to play Asian: Jennifer Jones in Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Paul Muni in The Good Earth, Yul Brynner in The King and I. Let's not even talk about Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was released a year after Suzy Wong.
After her first two sexy smash hits, Kwan's career was respectable but unspectacular. Lots of B movies, some appearances on Hawaii Five-O and E.R. -- that sort of thing. Perhaps it was renewed anti-Asian sentiment during the Vietnam War, perhaps it was bad management. Hard to say exactly what happened. I wish the documentary had tried harder.
Footage of pre-war and wartime Hong Kong was fascinating, discussion and clips from Kwan's movies were interesting. The Hong Kong debut of the ballet Suzy Wong was worth a peek, but probably not as much as we saw and with fewer uncomfortably close shots of Kwan watching the performance.
The problem with falling in love with your subject is that focusing on what will matter to a broader audience can be difficult. Jamieson also got swept into the great tragedy of Kwan's life, which was the death of her son from AIDS, contracted from his wife.
When family and friends told Jamieson that Kwan never spoke of Bernie's death, he became determined to coax that story out of her. "Very few people even realized she had a child," he told me. "The Chinese side of her had locked it away forever."
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To give her "spiritual" surroundings in which to unlock the memories, he took her to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, resulting in many scenes of her walking contemplatively among the ruins. And he did coax the tragic story from her, a story unique and yet familiar to any of us who lived through the 1980s and '90s, seeing friends and loved ones ravaged and ultimately felled by AIDS.
"The film turned out to be very therapeutic for her," Jamieson said. Kwan's friends and family tell him that she now speaks more freely of Bernie. So it's hard to begrudge either of them the indulgence. And since Suzy Wong ends with the lead character losing her son, there is the twist of "art imitating life, life imitating art," Jamieson said in real life, Kwan said in the film.
At 104 minutes, the movie feels awfully long -- especially for a career that started so hot but cooled pretty fast. But maybe I judge her films harshly, having never seen any but Flower Drum Song. Perhaps a Nancy Kwan film festival is in order.
At the Texas Theatre, of course.