Hollywood’s postwar Asian superstar, Nancy Kwan, acts as tour guide around her personal and professional history in the solid if pedestrian docu “To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey.” With generous but judicious use of clips from Kwan’s career, helmer Brian Jamieson’s feature will rep a choice selection for Asia-themed fests, but also has wider appeal to film buffs. Final reels, which dwell on a family tragedy, are moving but eventually throw the film off-balance; a trim would improve its appeal to pubcasters.
In a mostly chronological account, Kwan acts as both interviewee and sometime-narrator. Kwan’s Hollywood associates were interviewed mostly in Los Angeles, with family and childhood acquaintances in Hong Kong. For reasons that become more obvious later on, many of the sessions with Kwan and third husband Norbert Meisel were conducted at the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The daughter of an English actress and a Chinese architect in Hong Kong, Kwan (whose childhood name was Ka Shen) emphasizes her early desire to dance rather than act. After spending her teens studying at London’s Royal Ballet, Kwan returned to Hong Kong in time to join a local throng excited to see the filming of Hollywood production “The World of Suzie Wong” (1960). Kwan successfully auditioned for the lead role after Broadway originator France Nuyen, still somewhat mysteriously, dropped out of the production.
Film mavens from actress Joan Chen to chopsocky expert and former Weinstein Co. exec Bey Logan weigh in on Kwan’s overall significance for Asian actors. After “Suzie Wong,” Kwan rode what appeared to be a wave of new acceptance for Asian thesps in post-WWII America by landing the lead role in Ross Hunter’s “Flower Drum Song” (1961).
Unfortunately, the prevalence of Asian faces on U.S. screens was revealed to be a passing phase. Kwan fell back on less prestigious projects such as “The Wrecking Crew” (in which her character had the groan-inspiring name Yu-rang) and became a tube regular on everything from “Kung Fu” and “Hawaii 5-0” to “The A-Team.” Docu’s midsection jumbles its chronology to confusing effect, but regains focus when it puts Kwan’s close relationship with her son, Bernhard Pock, in the spotlight.
Pock grew up to be a poet, martial artist and stuntman, and even made a 1995 low-budget feature, “Rebellious,” with his mother in a starring role. Pock’s untimely death from an HIV-related illness dominates the final reels, and despite Kwan’s palpable charm and the pic’s near-hagiographic approach, this section feels tainted by an unhealed bitterness. Comments by Kwan and Meisel about Pock’s wife raise more questions than they answer and taint an otherwise affectionate portrait.
Less controversially, multiple awkward cutaways of Kwan watching the Hong Kong Ballet’s interpretation of “The World of Suzie Wong” could also be eliminated.
The touchy and important issue of Caucasians playing Asian roles is of course frequently discussed, but the arguments here are undercut by the docu’s silence on a subtler form of misrepresentation in casting, such as when Kwan played a Polynesian girl in “Tamahine” (1963).
Multihyphenate and former Warner Bros. exec Jamieson has assembled a handsome package with clips from homemovies and “Suzie Wong” screen tests. While contempo interviews are shot on good-enough video in a tube-friendly ratio, Jamieson takes advantage of Kwan’s film work and jumps to widescreen presentation when the occasion demands it. Non-Hollywood archival clips of wartime Hong Kong events are also well researched.