"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 3, 2011

"The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933) by Frank Capra (Film review)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a rarity in the work of director Frank Capra due to its war violence and exotic location. It is also a rather "artsy" film for the populist director. Due to the theme of love between a white woman and a Chinese man, which 1933 audiences in the U.S. could not stomach - women's clubs actually campaigned against the film (something so weird seen from today's perspective it is almost unbelievable - civilization and human feeling do indeed advance) - it flopped at the box office. Reviving it proved a hard task as prejudices took long to dwindle and today it has another problem: it is a film about China without any of the major actors being Chinese.

But it is quite an interesting story. American Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) arrives in Shanghai where civil war is raging to marry her missionary friend Robert Strife. Robert takes her immediately on a rescue mission of an orphanage in a war engulfed section of the city. In the tumult they are separated and Megan is captured by General Yen (Swedish actor Nils Asther) and brought by train to his palace.

The general develops a weak spot for the white lady, but he is a real gentleman and never bothers her. Fired by missionary zeal, from her side she tries to convert the "infidel," but gradually also begins to dress in Chinese gowns and harbor tender return feelings for the courtly and wise man. In one of the most striking sequences of the film, she even dreams about him.

The gentlemanly General is indeed a great contrast to his Western adviser, a Mr Jones (Walter Connolly), who is the typical capitalist, colonial money grabber without a shred of morality. This Westerner is the exact opposite of a gentleman.

Megan uses her influence on the General to have him pardon his mistress Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), who is accused of betraying military secrets to the enemy. Yen grants the request of the naive Megan and spares Mah-Li's life. That will be his undoing, for Mah-Li continues her double doings with as result that an enemy attack on general Yen's troops succeeds. The war tide turns against the General who now has only one option: to drink poisoned tea. His love has become his nemesis.

The most interesting point of this film is that it shows not only how ineffective the Christian mission in China was, but also how it backfired (said with all respect for those who dedicated their lives to it, among whom were also the first serious scholars of Chinese culture). That comes out in two ways. In the first place, at the beginning of the film one missionary tells about his experiences in the Chinese countryside. The Chinese there were extremely interested in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, so the "Man of God" was happy and full of hope to win countless converts. The locals kept asking for details of the story! But when he later returned to the same village he saw that he had been crying victory too soon. Crucifixion had become the major punishment for crimes! Apparently the always so practical Chinese had only been interested in the Bible to get some useful information about a new form of punishment...

The second and more important example is the film itself, where Megan Davis is led astray by her Christian compassion and has the General spare a dangerous enemy. Her good-willing interference is not based on any knowledge of Chinese culture and therefore has the opposite effect. This, one could say, is what went wrong in general with Western influence in China - and still goes wrong today when the West meddles in other cultures without taking the trouble to first understand them.

Stanwyck is more prim than usual, but the Chinese gowns look great on her. The sets are lavish, although not without mistakes, as I suppose Chinese in the 1930s would not put Buddha statues in their homes (for Chinese, these belonged in temples, not in homes - Western art collectors were the ones to treat Buddhas on the same level as other antiquities). Nils Asther does a great job as General Yen, he even manages to hold his own against Barbara Stanwyck, which is no mean feat. But it is true, he is not Chinese and today that grates on our sensibility.