Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen
I am still trying to figure out what the idea behind “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” is. It is not entirely easy.

On the one hand we have the story of a cynical Chinese warlord, General Yen (Niels Asther), who courts a western woman, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) that does not want him and end up risking and losing his empire for her.

On the other hand we have the story the woman, Megan, who comes to China with the intension of marrying her missionary childhood boyfriend, but gets her life turned upside down in a week as she is captured by General Yen and learn a thing or two about China.

On a deeper level it is the story of how what we believe to be the true way of thing may turn out to be something else indeed. The western community in Shanghai, especially the missionary lot, is convinced they are bringing the right way of life to the Chinese, while General Yen as representative of the Chinese culture turn that truth upside down and demonstrate it to be merely hypocrisy and ethnocentrism. Megan is shaken because the things and views she held true and right is being shattered. Most literally in the case of Mah-Li’s (Toshia Mori) betrayal of Megans trust or in Megan’s dream where she is attacked by a Nosferatu-like Chinese monster and saved by a masked white man who turns out to be General Yen.

The cast of this film is interesting. First of all we get a young Barbara Stanwyck. This is the third film with Barbara Stanwyck I comment on (the others being Stella Dallas and The Lady Eve) and the first one I actually saw. The three characters are very different and say something about Stanwycks range, but it is also noteworthy that she is leading all three films with her sheer presence. In “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” she is a missionary wife-to-be, full of zeal and devotion to her cause and her fiancée. She is a stout representative of conservative western culture but as she gets shaken she also becomes vulnerable and her eyes open to General Yen and what he represents.

The actor being General Yen is not Chinese at all. He was called Nils Asther and was Danish. Apparently Hollywood could not find a Chinese actor for the male lead but instead tried to transform a Caucasian actor by drawing raised eyebrows and tilting his eyes (not for the first time, see “Broken Blossoms”). I do not think it works very well. In profile he is so European and his attempts at talking Chinese are laughable. Apart from this however his character is very interesting and represents a counterpoint to Megan Davis.

Mah-Li is a crucial character being the servant/hostage/lover of General Yen. She is also not Chinese but the Japanese actor Toshia Mori. I must admit that I do not know much about her, but being Asian at least she lends credibility to the character (for me as a westerner). In many ways this character reminds me of Hui Fei as Anna May Wong in “Shanghai Express”. She is an enigma and all the mystery of the east. She also represents a different morality than western. She bows and faces fate, while secretly her loyalties are unchanged and certainly not by a western woman who has no place in the Chinese civil war. The same way Anna May Wong’s killing of Chang has nothing to do with Shanghai Lily or the other passengers on the train.

There is no way around the character of Jones (Walter Connolly), financial adviser of General Yen. He is the bridge between the cultures. Despite his loud mouthed and brash American behavior he has a very good feeling for the Chinese. He knows their culture, where to go and where he should stay away. In the same manner as he warns General Yen that with a western girl General Yen is on foreign, to him unknown, land and he better stay out of it. We start disliking Jones but at the end I felt real sympathy for the fellow.

Finally the movie was directed by Frank Capra. That actually came as a surprise to me. He is usually quite formulaic and prefers the all-American stories. In that sense “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” is something different.    

I have not decided yet how much I like the film, but I am tilting to the good side. It requires a bit of thinking but that is also rewarded. And Stanwyck is always good.


  1. I was pleasantly surprised by this film. I didn't realize Capra directed it until I looked it up afterwards. I also found that this is the film haters of Capra's happy movies (I'm not one of them) hold up as the one they like.

    My thought on why they had a non-Chinese man play General Yen, purely a guess on my part, is that even though the movie was heading into taboo territory for the time period with a possible interracial relationship, having a non-Asian man in the role might have reduced some possible objections to the dream sequence where she quite clearly sees him as a hero and potential romantic partner.

    1. Well, I do not dislike Capra's film. He just usually stay with one kind of stories, though that is not necesarily a bad thing. Hitchcock was not famous for his range, yet he has recieved much acclaim.

      Concerning the non-Chinese actor you have a point. I did not think of it in that context. My thought was that the role of General Yen is dialogue heavy and a native Chinese actor might have issues with that. It would not have been good if subtitles had been needed.