In Richard Quine’s The World of Suzie Wong (1960), Robert Lomax (William Holden) falls in love with Suzie Wong (Nancy Kwan), a young woman half his age. By examining their relationship, we can discover some of the reasons why older men and younger women fall in love. Older men are attracted to younger women because of their beauty, energy, and fertility, while younger women can be attracted to older men if they are emotionally mature and successful in their work.
Robert is attracted to Suzie because of her beauty and energy. He tells her she is “the prettiest girl in Hong Kong”, and he “thought so from the first moment” he saw her. Her life energy is seen when they take a boat ride, and she whispers in his ear, making him laugh. Suzie is a fountain of youth to Robert.
Not only is Suzie young and beautiful, a woman “not even twenty,” but she is a woman who has sexual power over a man. When she dances, swerving her hips, Robert is spellbound. Kay O’Neill (Sylvia Syms), who Robert is also attracted to, does not have Suzie’s vibrant sexuality.
As a model, Suzie becomes a muse for Robert’s art. Art is an outward expression of a person’s inner being, and Suzie, who inspires Robert’s paintings, touches the inmost part of his being. Her beauty and energy touches him on two levels: awakening love in his heart and unlocking his abilities as an artist. After Kay sells a portrait of Suzie in London, Robert tells Suzie, “You’re going to make me famous.” Robert is drawn to her because she can help fulfill his dream of becoming an artist.
Robert wants to rescue Suzie from her life of prostitution, and, in rescuing her, this strengthens his masculine identity. A man “pushing forty”, he is approaching a period of life when many men have a mid-life crisis. His job as an architect “never satisfied” him, and he “fell into a pattern.” To create a new life for himself, he moves to Hong Kong to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. However, when he runs out of money, his dream—and a renewed identity along with it—collapses. Rescuing Suzie from prostitution becomes a way for Robert to find a new identity apart from his art. His dream of becoming an artist may be dead, but he finds a new identity as a knight errant, rescuing a damsel in distress.
Suzie is attracted to Robert because of his goodness and maturity. She wants a “good man with [a] big heart.” As a prostitute, she sells her body to sailors who are physically and verbally abusive. She is attracted to Robert because he does not take advantage of her, even when she offers herself sexually to him. He tells her, “an artist always tries to look deeper.” He sees something “deeper” in Suzie, and treats her with dignity and respect.
Suzie’s relationship with Robert strengthens her self-worth as a woman. As a prostitute, she suffers from low self-esteem, creating a false history that she is the daughter of a rich man, often telling Robert, “I am not [a] dirty street girl.” These are all attempts to protect her fragile self-image. With Robert, she feels loved and accepted.
Suzie is also drawn to Robert because he can financially provide for her. As an architect, he has greater earning potential than most young men in Hong Kong. Robert may not be able to provide an income for Suzie as a painter, but he has a career as a draftsman that he can return to. Suzie cannot read or write, has no work experience, and when her beauty fades, her ability to earn money as a prostitute will also fade. If she wants to have another child, Robert can give her long-term financial security.
Love is a mystery that can never be fully understood or explained; yet it is not a complete mystery why older men and younger women can be attracted to each other. The beauty and energy of a younger woman can make an older man feel younger and more alive, and, if he wants to become a father, then marrying a woman his own age may be no longer be an option. Young women today may not want a man to provide for them, but they do want to avoid marrying a man whom they will have to financially provide for. A young woman can be swept away by an older man who is emotionally mature, has a successful career, and above all, treats her like gold.