#138 The Bitter Tea Of General Yen
(1933, Frank Capra)
“You can do so much more with mercy than you can with murder”
So, back when I reviewed It’s A Wonderful Life last Christmas I was impressed by how well director Frank Capra had made a truly timeless film that stood the test of time and is still easily enjoyed now. However, it wasn’t always that way for Mr Capra. Let’s go back a decade to one of Capra’s early films and we find a film that, straight off the bat, has a Chinese general played by a white man. Oh boy. Here we go.
The Bitter Tea Of General Yen is set during the Chinese Civil War, and Barbara Stanwyck plays Megan Davis, an American woman moving to China to marry her missionary husband. During a conflict, Megan gets separated from her husband and ends up a prisoner of General Yen, a Chinese warlord.
I had far too many issues with this movie. Oddly, when the movie was released, people took issue because they didn’t like the idea that an American woman could become attracted to a Chinese man. This was a time of much greater racial segregation, after all. Here in the present, I couldn’t get past the issue that it seemed less a positive portrayal of mixed-race attraction and more a portrayal of severe Stockholm Syndrome. Hell, the fact it was trying to be positive just made it look like it was saying that women are likely to feel sexually attracted to a man who has her imprisoned. BUT OF COURSE!
Slightly questionable attitudes towards women aside, I also didn’t like the portrayal of the Chinese. Now, much like a previous film I reviewed (A Passage To India), we have Westerners harrumphing around an Asian country and acting like they own the place, treating the native people like savages and second-class citizens.
But here’s where those movies differ. In A Passage To India, the snooty attitude the British present towards Indians is frowned upon and the British are made to look like the pompous arseholes we were in colonial days. The Americans in Bitter Tea freely throw around racial slurs about the Chinese and claim they are all immoral and inhuman, and THIS IS APPARENTLY OK! The fact that, as I previously stated, we have a European actor playing a Chinese man doesn’t help me from viewing the movie as racist.
Well, OK, racist is strong. Values were different in the thirties, and that’s why I give the film a little bit of a pass in this regard, but the problem was that there was little to elevate the movie beyond this uncomfortable interpretation.
The plot seemed entirely aimless, and I couldn’t grasp what Capra was trying to do. Was it a movie about war? Was it a movie about culture clash? Was it a swashbuckling adventure with a damsel in distress that needs rescuing? Was it the first movie ever about interracial romance? It seemingly tried to be all of these at once and failed at being any of them. It was a meandering experience that ultimately felt inconsequential.
There were also moments of weirdness, such as a dream Megan has where she imagines Yen as both a Fu Manchu style rapist and dashing masked hero that felt incredibly out of place. In fact, the whole “romance” angle the movie was going for didn’t seem to work at all for me, and was generally uncomfortable to watch.
There were some good performances with what the actors had to work with, but the movie feels so unfocused and has some questionable attitudes that even that doesn’t save the movie, which ultimately leaves a bitter aftertaste. Definitely not my cup of tea.
Starring Barbara Stanwyck & Nils Asther
Written by Grace Zaring Stone (novel) and Edward Paramore
Produced by Walter Wanger
Music by W. Franke Harling
Cinematography by Joseph Walker
Edited by Edward Curtiss
Favourite Scene: I didn’t really have one, sorry
Scene That Bugged Me: A missionary tells a story about Mongolian tribesmen using the story of Jesus on the cross as inspiration for crucifying their enemies as an example of the supposed savagery. He ends it with “that, my friends, is China.” Except it’s not. It’s Mongolia. But nice try.
Watch it if: You’re a Frank Capra completionist
Avoid it if: It’s not the 1930s anymore