The American missionary Megan Davis arrives in Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War to marry the missionary Dr. Robert Strife. However, Robert postpones their wedding to rescue some orphans in an orphanage in Chapei section that is burning in the middle of a battlefield. While returning to Shanghai with the children, they are separated in the crowd, Megan is hit in the head and knocked out, but is saved by General Yen and brought by train to his palace. As the days go by, the General's mistress Mah-Li becomes close to Megan and when she is accused of betrayal for giving classified information to the enemies, Megan asks for her life. The cruel General Yen falls in love for the naive and pure Megan and accepts her request to spare the life of Mah-Li against the will of his financial advisor Jones. Meanwhile Megan feels attracted by the powerful and gentle General Yen, but resists to his flirtation. When Mah-Li betrays General Yen and destroys his empire, Megan realizes that to be able ... Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Chinese officials in Washington, D.C. complained about the depiction of the treatment of war prisoners in this film (which were toned down a bit) and some dehumanizing language about the Chinese people, such as "Human life is the cheapest thing in China," (which remains in the film). See more »
You can always do so much more with mercy than you can with murder. Why don't you give her another chance?
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A young missionary finds herself swept into a world of Oriental intrigue & power, after being rescued' by a Chinese warlord.
With THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN, Columbia Pictures & director Frank Capra created a small cinematic gem. Not only does the film boast of superb production values, a first-class script & excellent performances, but it enwraps its audience in a sensual romance which rewards intelligent viewing, while offering a liberal dash of pre-Code sensibilities. Miscegenation, so soon to become absolutely taboo in Hollywood, here is made palatable & attractive, indeed, reasonable, the natural outcome of passions molded by tumultuous times.
Although billed second, Nils Asther takes acting honors in the title role. A matinee idol during silent days, Asther found it difficult to find good roles in talking pictures, hampered by his exotic looks which made him hard to cast to his advantage. But with BITTER TEA he found the role of a lifetime. Although tall & Swedish, he completely inhabits the skin of his Asian character, making the General at once believable & sympathetic. His every movement, shift of the eyes, even the way he chews his food are all part of his persona. Nearly forgotten now, Asther shows with this one performance what he was capable of achieving.
As the missionary captive, Barbara Stanwyck gives the kind of competent, skillful & engaging interpretation which she would bring to all of her roles over the course of several decades. Capra's favorite actress, the dramatic flames she lights are an intriguing counterpoint to the repressed emotions of Asther's Yen.
Loud, brash Walter Connolly, as the General's financial advisor, makes a good contrast to Asther; his plainspoken character often gives voice to what the others are thinking. Lovely Toshi Mori graces the role of the General's unfaithful concubine. A young Richard Loo is her secret lover.
Movie mavens will recognize Clara Blandick in the role of the feisty missionary hostess at the beginning of the film & Willie Fung as the rebel train engineer, both uncredited.
While meant to be funny and introduce the plot, the opening scenes are a bit unfair to Western missionaries in China, portraying them as rather fatuous, repressed & gossipy. By in large, missionaries lived lives full of self-sacrifice & devotion. In return, not a few were rewarded with penury and an early grave. That today the Underground Church' in China numbers many millions of Christian believers stands as a witness to the faithfulness of these good people.
The era of the Chinese warlord - such as General Yen in the film
was brief but colorful and extremely violent. The Qing
dynasty, China's last, was overthrown in 1911 and the Republic of China was formed. Its despotic president, Yüan Shih-kai, relied more on military force than democratic principles to maintain his authority over China's vast stretches & huge population. Upon his death in 1916, the country was thrown into confusion & chaos, with numerous military officers & powerful bandit kings all using their armies to control districts and even whole provinces, constantly warring with each other amid a swirling sea of ever-changing alliances and bitter feuds. Foreign powers (Soviet Russia, Imperial Japan & Great Britain) only made matters worse by supporting various factions. It was the ordinary Chinese citizen who suffered most, with the depredations of war's brutality & the inevitable famines rained upon them. It was not until 1928, with the capture of Peking by Republican General Chiang Kai-shek, and the reunification of China, that the power of the warlords was finally broken.
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