A Hollywood mid-50s romance set in Hong Kong amidst the backdrop of the Chinese Communist Revolution and the Korean War, starring two white stars. There are few other things in the golden-age Hollywood era that scream “this is going to be racist as fuck” as much as this, with the exception of “Cowboys kill savage Indians again”. With that in mind, it is distinctively damning with faint praise for Love is a Many-Splendored Thing that the best thing I can find to say about it is that it’s absolutely nowhere near as racist as it could have been. There are still moments when Chinese characters lapse into speaking in half-baked semi-mystical proverbs cooked up by the screenwriters but largely the film avoids too many stereotypes. Hell, there’s even a comic relief character who is a blatant caricature of white colonialist aristocracy, with all the presumed arrogance and idiocy that that entails.
Unfortunately, it’s also absolutely boring as all-loving hell. I’m not someone who is averse to a good Hollywood weepie. When the two stars have chemistry and are under good direction which allows them to form an onscreen intimacy, a good Hollywood romance is as perfectly fine a form of film as any other genre or style you care to mention. But when it is done as drearily as this film, brimming with dialogue that sounds as if it was carved into wood rather than written or typed, it is an absolute slog to get through. The plot is your standard fare: in 1948 American war journalist Mark Elliott (William Holden) arrives in Hong Kong to report on the influx of refugees from the ongoing instability in China, where he meets Chinese-English doctor Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) and falls in love, and thereafter they have to overcome a number of obstacles such as the fact that he is already married and other such banalities.
The casting of Jennifer Jones as a person of mixed Chinese and English descent isn’t…ideal, but it’s a damn sight better than the decision to cast John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. In fact, one of the film’s few interesting and positive aspects is how Jones’ character is quite open and happy with her mixed-race identity and doesn’t struggle with it, despite some of the issues she faces in a socially restrictive society that doesn’t really allow for a multitude of overlapping identities. Her perception of herself is contrasted with one of her Chinese-English friends who only ever presents herself as one of the two depending on the context: she is English when it is advantageous to be so, Chinese when it is not. Although the film doesn’t really engage in this path at all beyond a few minor scenes, it is still interesting to see a film such as this, made firmly in the conservative Hollywood system with commercial desires at heart, dealing with issues of ethnic identity in a frank and open way. However, it still remains no more than a tiny spark of interest in a film that is otherwise utterly insipid and brain-gnawingly dull.
The direction in particular is especially bad, with the gorgeous Hong Kong location shooting available to Henry King amounting to little more than window dressing. Seeing a 1950s Hong Kong that is not yet the steel and skyscraper metropolis it is today provides us with more entertainment and detail occurring in the background than the utterly dead romance between William Holden and Jennifer Jones. The widescreen cinemascope photography was presumably chosen as a way to get the most out of the landscape, yet because of its sheer width it is also not an aspect ratio that is easy to shoot close-ups in – most of the film is in mid-to-long takes – and a romance film needs close-ups. It needs intimacy and the directness of the human face. This does not have it, its direction draining all intimacy out of the relationship at the centre of the film. The dialogue is already awful, giving the two leads little to do other than simply recite their lines. The direction makes things even worse.
Recently I was on holiday with my girlfriend. One night we walked along the beach for a little while. We saw another couple doing the same. At one moment they stopped, and took their smartphones out. They then stepped away from each and took two individual selfies just of themselves, not with the other half, and spent the next few minutes uploading them to Facebook before carrying on. A more depressing and limp display of public affection I have rarely seen. Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is that relationship in cinematic form.