Adapted from Han Suyin’s autobiographical novel, a Eurasian physician and an American war correspondent fall in love in Hong Kong even though she is reluctant and he is married.
In Hong Kong in 1949 Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) works in a hospital. Dr. John Keith (Murray Matheson) invites her to a cocktail party, and she says she is Eurasian. A priest says he was thrown out of China, but she wants to help people in China. Mark Elliott (William Holden) hands her fan and gloves to her. He invites her to dinner, and she says it is not done; she suggests he call her. In the car she asks Dr. Keith about Elliott, and he says Mark is married but is not in love with his wife.
Mark calls her, and she agrees to meet him at six. He notices her European dress and says he likes her Chinese dress better. He drives her and says he is a correspondent. They take a water taxi to the restaurant. She says it is the full moon festival. He hopes destiny has brought them together, but she is sure it has not. He supports her belief about the omen of the moon. He sees the richest man in the world, and she suggests he could interview him. He says she has retreated to a tower. In the car later she thanks him for the evening. At her door he says he is married, and she says it makes no difference. He asks to see her again, but she says no.
Han Suyin treats a little girl, and she says refugees are coming from China. Humphrey Palmer-Jones (Torin Thatcher) asks her to look in on his wife. Adeline Palmer-Jones (Isobel Elsom) was bit by a centipede. Suyin says she can go home. Adeline asks what she wants, and she says a bigger hospital. Mark calls her and says he has to fly to Singapore. She encourages him to call when he gets back. At a restaurant Suyin recognizes her old friend Suzanne (Jorja Curtright) from the convent. Suyin says her husband was killed. Suzanne says she passes for English and has found an Englishman. Suyin visits John, and he says Mark’s wife is in Singapore.
Mark is waiting for Suyin at the hospital and asks her to go swimming. Adeline sees Mark and invites him to tea. He says he is working. In the elevator Suyin says she does not want to arouse gossip. Mark says he did not see his wife in Singapore. He takes her in his car to the beach. She changes to a bathing suit while he strips to his trunks. She says it could be harmful for him to see too much of her. She is proud to be Eurasian. She says he may need a love affair, but she does not want to complicate her life. They swim across to her friend’s house. Halfway she says he has been good for her. She introduces him to Robert Hung (Richard Loo), Nora Hung (Soo Yong), and Anne Richard (Virginia Gregg). Mark dances with Suyin to make east and west closer. They go back in a small boat, and he kisses her. She says a Chinese proverb is not to wake a sleeping tiger. He thinks he is in love with her. She feels on the brink and is frightened. She says her Chinese side is debating her European side. She says he is stronger and must decide. She says he is strong because he is gentle. Outside her house she warns him not to take her on. He asks to meet her tomorrow, and she says she will meet him by a tree on a hill at five. They kiss goodnight. Later he calls her to say goodnight.
Suyin climbs stairs and sees him on the hill. She says she is late, but he says they are both early. She lays down in the grass and sees a butterfly on his shoulder, a good omen. She wants to deceive the gods so they won’t notice her and be jealous. They both say they are serious, and he kisses her.
Mark comes to the hospital to see Suyin because she called. In her office he kisses her. She is going to her uncle in Chungking in the morning because of her younger sister Suchen. She wants to see China to see if she wants to go there. Also she wants to get away from him for a while. She is afraid of becoming a cheap Hong Kong Eurasian. He gets angry and says that will never happen. She does not want anything sordid. He says she does not have to go because he will get out now. She asks him not to threaten her, and he walks out.
Suyin takes an airplane and sits next to Suzanne, who is sitting separately from her Englishman who works at the hospital. Suyin is welcomed by a large family headed by Third Uncle (Philip Ahn). He says Suchen has brought disgrace on them. Suyin goes to see Suchen (Donna Martell), and they embrace. Suchen says Third Uncle will not help her leave China; she wants to be free like Suyin, who promises to get her a passport.
At her family’s house Mark comes to talk with her, and Third Uncle gives her permission. In a garden he asks her to marry him, saying he will get free. She agrees but would like to ask her uncle. They return to the family, and she asks permission. Mark says he will not make her stop practicing medicine. Third Uncle asks where she will go if she loses her passport. Mark says he would live in China, and Suyin says they could go to America. Her uncle’s wife says he is a foreigner. She chooses to be with Mark, and Third Uncle tells her to leave nothing with them. They each give her jade.
Suyin and Mark fly back to Hong Kong. He says they don’t have to worry about omens. He says he has to fly to Singapore to see his wife. She says when he stops biting his finger nails, he will be at peace and completely hers.
Nora Hung tells Suyin she looks radiant, and she says it is Mark. On the phone Suyin gets a cablegram that he has stopped biting his fingernails.
Suyin meets Mark at the airport, and in the car he says his wife changed her mind and won’t release him. Suyin hopes she changes her mind again. He takes her home, and she advises him to go home.
Suyin and Mark meet on the hill by the tree. Mark says he has to go to Macao on a story for a week. He asks her to join him in a few days, and she says yes. He says he loves her, and they kiss.
Adeline calls Suyin and asks her to come see her. Suyin stops by on her way to the boat. Adeline says she wanted to talk to her. Adeline says conventions must be observed and that there has been talk because Mr. Elliott is married. Adeline warns her not to be indiscreet.
Suyin arrives in Macao and gets a message Mr. Elliott will be delayed. Mark comes to her room, and they embrace. She says her perceptions are heightened. She feels happy and frightened because they have been given so much. They hear and see a funeral procession. She says it is good to be alive. She says her friends did not speak to her because it would not be polite with him there. He asks if she can stay a week, and she says she will. He orders dry martinis, and they dance. She wants her fortune told, and the fortune teller sees many children and a long life together. Mark gets a cable and makes reservations to return to Hong Kong. He tells her that North Korea invaded South Korea, and he packs. She asks if he could not go. He says no; he has to go.
Mark sees Suyin home and says he will call her. Adeline sees her at the hospital and says she was needed there. Suyin learns that her residency is not renewed. Dr. Sen says she will not be given another residency; he tells her to go back to China. Mark calls her and asks to meet her on the hill. There he takes her hand, and she is happy. She asks what he will write about Korea, and he says war. She asks if he could be killed. He has to leave and says he did not have time to bring her a present. She promises to be there when he comes back, and they kiss. They wave goodbye.
Suyin calls Nora and says she lost her position and asks if she can stay with her little friend. Nora says yes. Dr. Sen says he is going back to China and asks her to go back with him. He tells her to forget that man. She says she is not a Communist like him.
Suyin says she has been job hunting, and she is willing to see Palmer-Jones. She gets a letter from Mark and reads it.
In a forest amid soldiers Mark types and sees a butterfly on his typewriter. In her bedroom Suyin writes a good-luck prayer for Mark. She reads another letter. In the forest Mark writes by hand, and enemy planes attack. In her bedroom her little friend breaks a dish and cries.
Suyin gets another letter. Anne comes in with a newspaper and says Mark is dead. She reads his letter that says God has been good to them. She says his letters will continue to come one by one. She goes out and walks in the streets. She climbs the stairs and sees Mark for a moment by the tree. She remembers his voice. By the tree she kneels and cries. His voice says she can do something about suffering. They have not missed the many-splendored thing.
This romantic drama challenges racial prejudices and shows how those from different cultures can be attracted and learn from their differences. The story is drawn from the novelist’s experience and is realistic. Yet the romance is very beautiful and idealized even though it is tragically cut short. During the historical moment of the Chinese revolution and the beginning of the Korean War, the world seems to stand still for love.