The recent release of Fate is the Hunter [M] (1964) on DVD once again re-aligned the spotlight on actress Nancy Kwan, the Hong Kong-born, Eurasian actress who enjoyed a meteoric career with her debut in The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Flower Drum Song (1961), but was already cast aside by Hollywood by the late sixties, appearing in banal comedies or as the exotic attraction in spoofy productions like The Wrecking Crew (1969).
Unlike the tragic career of African American actress Dorothy Dandridge, Kwan continued to appear in films and TV productions, but her decision to move back to Hong Kong to look after her ailing father and raise her son in a fully Chinese culture was to Hollywood's establishment a voluntary departure of her studio-level career; in their narrow view, if she wasn't willing to accept whatever the studios felt were proper showcases for her skills & assets, there would be no further work.
Her personal life - a divorce from Pock, the loss of her father, her estranged relationship with her vagabond birth mother - is far richer than her sparse film work, and the doc is structured around Kwan's appearance in Hong Kong to promote the recent stage revival of Suzie Wong. Watching the show with fellow audience members and husband Norbert Meisel, Kwan reflects on her life and the parallels between the character of Wong and herself. Director Brian Jamieson weaves together specific scenes from the musical with vintage film clips, stills, print art, and narration by Kwan and Nick Redman, and these form early narrative strands which lead towards Kwan's greatest personal tragedy - the loss of her only child, Bernie Pock.
It's a deeply delicate matter which, as Jamieson has described in detail in a lengthy interview, was important to chronicling Kwan's personal journey, but it was also risky to include, since Kwan had never spoken about her son's passing from AIDS in detail, and the doc is ultimately structured to close with Kwan discussing a son whom she also regarded as a best friend and a spiritual mentor. A prolific stuntman, martial arts expert, and independent filmmaker (Kwan and her husband produced their son’s directorial debut Rebellious a year before his death, in 1996), Bernie Pock lived life to the absolute fullest, making the impact of his absence within Kwan and Meisel's lives so profound.
Fans of Kwan may have to temper their expectations, because those wanting a traditional documentary with film clips and interviews with her co-stars are in for a more humanistic portrait of the actress's life as a skilled talent, and a woman who broke the racial glass ceiling and helped open the door for Asian actresses to gain greater roles in Hollywood films before the door swung back for a while a decade later. Kwan was also perhaps a victim of the studio system: although shepherded through roles by agent (and later film producer) Ray Stark, she wasn't able to exploit her name value in small independent character films during the seventies; her few indie flicks include Hong Kong action films, and a co-starring role in Project: Kill (1976) by hack extraordinaire William Girdler (The Manitou).
With literally few exceptions, the bulk of Kwan's Hollywood output is unavailable on home video are rarely screened anywhere, and her Hong Kong films are equally tough to track down, so it may be difficult for newcomers to comprehend why she remains an important figure in film history.
Perhaps the best example - musicals excepted - lies in Fate is the Hunter. Because her modest role isn't culturally specific, Kwan revealed the multiple layers of sensitivity she could convey in a ‘straight’ dramatic film. Hollywood's stereotyping sensibilities, and unpredictable life challenges are the chief stressors that ultimately circumvented what should've been a lengthy, solid career. Her impact and place in film history is ably supported by myriad interviews with friends, family, and colleagues.
More interesting among her colleagues is France Nuyen, who portrayed Suzie Wong on Broadway, and for which Kwan was her understudy during a tour in Toronto. Also pegged as an exotic beauty, Nuyen went through a similar ethnic flavour of the month period, playing the titular role in A Girl Named Tamiko (1962) before quickly being plugged into regional dramas like Diamond Head (1963) before a career switch to TV, and B-movie fodder like Dimension 5 (1966) – a pretty fast slide within 4 years.
Available from Redwind Productions on DVD and Blu-ray (see website link below), the DVD features a clean transfer of the film with plenty of rare stills and film clips, plus some audition reels of Kwan prior to being cast in Suzie Wong.
A very detailed interview with Brian Jamieson regarding the genesis and making of To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey (2010) is available at Examiner.com.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan