The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a film which I've long wanted to see. An early Frank Capra work, the film has become hotly debated. Does it perpetuate Asian stereotypes or did it portray the titular protagonist as a complex and fully developed character. After missing it a few times in the past few years at the PFA and Stanford, I caught the film at the Castro in August.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen starring Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther; directed by Frank Capra; (1933)
It wasn't until last year's Early Capra series at the PFA that I learned that Stanwyck & Capra were romantically involved. I have read differing opinions on Stanwyck's sexuality but men were most certainly part of her repertoire. Bitter Tea has an added dimension if the director and leading lady are romantically involved. I associate Stanwyck in the early 1930s with a number of pre-code films that would later be censored. The films include Night Nurse and Baby Face. In Bitter Tea, Stanwyck's character is more straight-laced as she is engaged to a Christian missionary in China.
What sets The Bitter Tea of General Yen apart is the inter-racial romance between Stanwyck's Megan Davis and General Yen (Nils Asther). The film was banned in several countries for depicting miscegenation even though Asther was in yellowface and their characters never consummated their relationship.
More provocative is Davis' attraction to the Chinese warlord which is manifested in a feverish dream sequence. In the dream, Davis is menaced by Yen whose face is distorted by lupine features. The yellow menace is dispatched by a masked man who is then revealed to be none other than General Yen himself. Davis is simultaneously frightened and attracted to Yen.
Stanwyck and Asther prove capable in their roles. At least, Asther played General Yen as a man of power without a minimum of racial stereotype. Stanwyck was a little too subdued as the American put in harms way by her own folly and later, General Yen's desires. Her sexual desires were always under the surface but the inner turmoil is too muted.
The standout in the film is Toshia Mori as Yen's concubine, Mah-Li. Duplicitous and seductive, Mah-Li is like a cobra - beautiful but potentially fatal. Mah-Li is less evil than a product of the culture she comes from. Forced to play her role as the warlord's concubine, she decides to play the game as best she can. Originally intended for Anna May Wong, Capra cast Mori in what turned out to be her most famous role. Mori, a Kyoto born/American raised actress, has no credits in IMDB after 1937. What happened to her? She lived until 1995. Whatever the story is, her absence from the silver screen was our loss.
However, in one film at least, Mori shines brightest. The Bitter Tea of General Yen is not Capra-esque. In fact, it reminds me more of a pair of Josef von Sternberg film - Shanghai Express and The Shanghai Gesture. In all three films, the Asian women are portrayed as complex (if not distasteful by Western standards) characters. There is also a scene where Stanwyck is wearing an evening gown and the overhead lights reflect off the sequins in a blinding glitter. I'm certain I've seen von Sternberg film Marlene Dietrich in a similar manner.
So you could package The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Shanghai Express and The Shanghai Gesture into series depicting China in the 1930s or at least Western views of China in the period. However, the three films rise above the typical level of Asian stereotypes depicted in films of the period despite engaging in a modest amount of these very stereotypes. Besides, films made in the 1930s cannot be judged on the standards of the 2010s. In addition, Capra and von Sternberg are acknowledged masters of their craft and the skills are clearly on display in these films.
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