The Bitter Tea of General Yen is no doubt a perplexing film to come at today but, in some respects, that makes the experience all the more gratifying. There’s still something within it 80 years on that will simultaneously rub up against our contemporary perspective while also surprising us with a certain adroitness. So many issues are stacked up one on top of another, it’s a weighty task to begin trying to unpack them all.
Certainly, we have the strains of colonialism driven by western missionaries looking to share the Christian faith with the outer reaches of the world. In fact, we can probably derive some similar themes from films such as Keys to the Kingdom (1944) and Silence (2016) which provide a myriad of questions in their own right. Are these missionaries really making a difference? Is their Gospel even being comprehended? Should they be so bold as to force their beliefs on other people groups? All of these are up for valid consideration.
Racism must also be tackled whether it is shown to prove a point or is simply a casualty of a previous generation’s approach to Asian portrayals. We hear the words of one elderly lady who in one moment is going on about how lovely a wedding is going to be and then the next she shares her true sentiments about the Chinese.
“They’re all tricky and immoral. I can’t tell any of them apart. They’re all Chinamen to me.”
It’s this kind of narrow thinking, this blatantly obvious cultural insensitivity, laid right out in front of us. Thus, it seems likely the film’s main thesis might be to prove the exact opposite. That in itself seems monumental.
We have the casting of a Scandinavian in Nils Asther for the role of the Chinese general to contend with as well. And while it’s easy to get stuck on this or go the complete opposite end of the spectrum and take it for granted given the cultural moment it came out of, I hope to arrive at another conclusion. “Yellowface” always perturbs me and yet I also realize we have to understand the intentions and so I’m apt to read this picture much as I would Broken Blossoms (1919).
Whereas Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan work in stereotypes and the Fu Manchu archetype is the demonizing of a race, you do not quite get the same sense here. Even with the problems inherent in the characterization, what comes through emotionally is resonant. Then, further still is the landmark consideration of interracial romance, no doubt a turn off for many contemporary viewers — or at the very least taboo.
The whole narrative is really about the steadily evolving relationship between an American woman (Stanwyck) and this Chinese General (Asther) who keeps her in his domain on the pretense that it is for her own safety with the civil war still raging at large.
Megan is one of those naive yet well-meaning individuals who comes to a foreign land to do good. This is the imperative of “The Great Commission” and bless her soul, she takes her faith seriously, coming to join her soon-to-be husband wherever he may go.
But soon she is struck with a reality check. Her fiancee and she try and rescue some orphans caught in the middle of the hellish war zone, but the pass they’ve been provided is no good. In the ongoing turmoil, Megan finds herself brought to the palace of General Yen for safekeeping, her husband lost in the chaos.
What follows is an exercise not so much in polarizing romance, which would be the easier road to traverse, but instead cultural understanding through candid dialogue. He criticizes what he sees as a flaw in her man, that he will betray her every time for his God. Meanwhile, the idea all humanity is one flesh and blood is almost laughable to him.
And yet, again and again, he is drawn not only to her exquisite appearance but the undeniable sincerity that guides her every action. She, in turn, recognizes something of a hidden sensitivity welled up inside his soul. As he notes, “There has never been a people more purely artist, and therefore, more purely lover, than the Chinese.”
The most straining circumstance involves the General’s lowly concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mia) who has all but disobeyed him. Megan chides him to forgive her even in her insolence (“I want you to see the beauty of giving love where it isn’t merited”) and for the greater offense of passing secrets which gives him the grounds to have her killed. You can either say he softens or finally lets down his guard. It’s semantics really.
This might very well be the Capra picture people don’t expect because it flies in the face of all the criticisms usually leveled against him. Specifically, that he always made overly sentimentalized films without a shred of hard reality. I’ve tried to push back against this presupposition countless times and I think The Bitter Tea General Yen is another fine counterargument. Look no further than the excruciatingly frank depictions of military executions, soldiers decimated by Gatling guns, betrayal, suicide, and near surrealistic dreams that invade a woman’s consciousness.
However, it’s difficult not to begin comparing it most obviously to Shanghai Express (1932), a picture that reveled in its atmosphere and featured Josef von Sternberg’s visual infatuation with Marlene Dietrich. Frank Capra does Stanwyck justice in his own right because there’s no doubt she’s vibrant and alluring throughout. It’s brought into sharp relief through numerous stunning close-ups that capture the softness of her features. Not to mention the tears. Something that makes her different and more vulnerable than her German contemporary.
But we must ask the question. Is it a type of Stockholm Syndrome? Is it a true romance or simply an affection for a man who had more beauty, more artistry, than she would have initially given him credit for? I’m not sure we know and the ingeniousness, I realized retrospectively, of the film’s ending, is that we never hear Barbara Stanwyck’s thoughts on the matter.
Walter Connolly just won’t shut up and he’s supposing all these different things. Recalling what a great guy the General was, considering what Megan will do next, and summing up the General’s spiritual proclivities. Maybe he’ll come back in some new incarnation. But the lady says next to nothing and there is a cryptic power in this. Because The Bitter Tea of General Yen allows us to ruminate over the material and draw out conclusions of our own.