I made a promise to myself that I will watch all classics, just because of their extraordinary reputation. I itch to know why they’ve been lauded as the best for decades.
So today, I watched Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), starring William Holmes and Jennifer Jones. It’s 1949, and Han Suyin (Jones) is a resident doctor at a Hong Kong hospital. She proudly deems herself “Eurasian” — she’s half English, half Chinese — and goes about her business believing that her heart has died after her husband was killed years ago. She meets Mark Elliot (Holmes) at a dinner party, and despite her initial reservations about this married man, they eventually fall madly in love.
A typical love story, don’t you think? I thought so. And I kind of wished that that was all I had to say about it.
A blatant issue was that their relationship seemed to progress too quickly. It did not correspond to how adamant Han had been about being perfectly fine as a widow, devoting all her time to medicine only, and not having affairs with married men. The first night, they had dinner together; this, I deem acceptable. However, they meet again, two weeks later, and they end up going swimming. I was shocked when Elliot dragged Han around by her hand, and even more shocked when they kissed later that night — what happened to Han’s values? why was this all happening on their second date? were people back in the 50s not more conservative than we are today? On the fourth night they meet, Elliot asks for Han’s hand in marriage. Em… No, thank you? I barely know you?
Another issue was the misrepresentation of Chinese culture. While the scenery is undoubtedly 100% correct — they did film in Hong Kong, after all — many simple things were overlooked:
- Han speaks Mandarin to the child she treats in her hospital. She’s in Hong Kong. Hong Kong people, especially during that time period, speak Cantonese.
- During the funeral procession in Macao, the music playing is actually wedding music. What a way to confuse the scene.
- Han’s uncle invites her in to have tea by saying, “Let us have tea and talk of absurdities.” Erm. Wha? I totally didn’t get why her uncle said this. Yes, Chinese people say, “Let’s have tea!” often, but they don’t tell their guests that they’re just going to bullshit with them for the next three hours while sipping on scalding liquid. No! In fact, which culture does that? Do we do that? “How about we go grab a coffee at Tim Hortons and talk about nothing for our entire lunch break?” If you did that often enough, you’d probably end up a loner.
- The fortune telling was absolutely hilarious. Hilarious because it was so absurdly wrong. Firstly, the rice scratchings Han did was incorrect; the process is supposed to work somewhat like a Ouija board — a “force” guides your hand to help you write the message you are receiving. Second, the entire process of kau cim (where Han took the bottle of sticks and turned it upside down until one stick fell out) was abhorrently incorrect. Kau cim is usually performed in front of deity’s altar, not in front of a fake fortune teller. This is because you are asking for the deity’s aid, and you can do so directly. You kneel, think of a question, and begin shaking the bottle at an angle (not upside down). By shaking on an angle, one stick will eventually fall out — this is the fortune that the deity has chosen for you. It was odd how only one stick fell out when Han turned the entire bottle upside down — gravity didn’t seem to give equal treatment to all the sticks in the bottle!
- The child that Han adopted was named “Oh-No”. What?! What was that? An attempt at humour? It better have been — otherwise, it is a very bad attempt at creating a “Chinese-like” name.
You would’ve thought that Hollywood spent a bit more time doing some background research before filming, especially since they had so many knowledgeable locals they could’ve enlisted. Nope. I bet the Chinese people acting out the funeral procession were chuckling as they danced to the wedding music.
The goal of this movie was to portray how Han and Elliot’s love overcame the prejudice they faced for having an interracial relationship. However, this theme wasn’t obvious while I watched the movie; what I saw more was the prejudice Han faced for dating a married man. Sure, her comments about being “Eurasian” popped up here and there, but when the gossip came up (for example, brought on by that annoying Ms. Palmer-Jones), it was usually about Elliot’s existing marriage.
Final verdict: Fail. Perhaps a great movie then, but not really worth the time now. A few scenes were just humourous enough to make me smile, but the mismatch between Han’s values and her actions as well as the incorrect depiction of Chinese culture forced me to spend the entire 102 minutes brooding instead of enjoying the film. Thankfully, the ending was a bit more creative, and saved me from enduring more of their overly mushy scenes.