After Florence Fallon's father dies unappreciated in the church where he preached for many years, she becomes embittered and loses faith. She teams up with Horsby, a con man, and performs ... See full summary »
Socially-conscious banker Thomas Dickson faces a crisis when his protégé is wrongly accused for robbing the bank, gossip of the robbery starts a bank run, and evidence suggests Dickson's wife had an affair...all in the same day.
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
Can't you forgive her? She's only a child. You can always do so much more with mercy than you can with murder. Why don't you give her another chance? Oh, I know you feel that she has deceived you and sold information to your enemies; perhaps, even been unfaithful to you. All that's dreadful and if its true you have a certain justification in wanting to crush her. But, I want you to think of all those things and then forgive her. I don't know how you feel about Mah-Li; I mean, whether you love ...
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Frank Capra's most atypical and sensual picture, The Bitter Tea of General Yen defies everything people think they know about the director. No small town schmaltz or last minute reprieves here, but a surprisingly modern and often brutal adult drama set in a surprisingly morally ambiguous China torn apart by local warlords and opportunistic Westerners making a fast buck out of the chaos. Bodies hang from what is left of buildings, refugees are machine-gunned from passing trucks as children watch with emotionless faces, and when Stanwyck arrives in the middle of the evacuation of Shanghai to marry a missionary she hasn't seen in three years, no-one not even the priest who has come to collect her can be bothered to help her dying rickshaw driver. 'Rescued' by Nils Asther's General Yen, she is awoken by the sound of firing squads carrying out mass executions of prisoners. Yen apologises and promises it will not happen again "They are taking the rest of them down the road, out of earshot." Quickly realising that he has no intention of returning her to her fiancé, she finds herself involuntarily drawn to him as he constantly challenges her preconceived notions of the Chinese, with tragic consequences.
Although racist stereotypes are present, especially in a surprisingly sexual nightmare sequence where Yen appears as both vampiric rapist and heroic rescuer, they're mainly there to be subverted, and it's surprisingly critical of how incompatible and patronising the intentions of Christian missionaries to impose western values are with the people they have come to 'save.' Racism and defeatism is rife among their ranks as they see dubious merit in their work as one elderly missionary reveals when explaining how he misinterpreted a group of Mongolian bandits' spellbound interest in the Easter story until they promptly crucified the next merchants' caravan to pass through their territory. Indeed, it's an act of 'Christian' charity and forgiveness that has the most devastating results for Yen, with Barbara Stanwyck only faintly beginning to understand the world she finds herself in too late.
Both characters are uncomfortable with the nature of their desires, and Yen's relationship with his Chinese mistress and his insistence that Stanwyck give herself to him freely or not at all is surprisingly sophisticated considering the usual 'Yellow Peril' stereotypes of the day. Asther in particular does a fine job of avoiding cliché with a complex and unpatronising portrait mixing casual cruelty, bemused cynicism and great sensitivity that is quite remarkable for its time. Walter Connolly similarly plays against expectations as the general's 'financial adviser,' and to him falls the beautiful closing lines in the film's final scene one of those pieces of great writing that left me thinking, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!" A critical and commercial fop in its day, much cut by the censors (Columbia's UK DVD appears to be uncut) and rarely revived, it has maturity and a tortured romanticism that is truly unique among Capra's work and is well worth seeking out. Great photography by Joseph Walker too.
(A version of this review appeared in Movie Collector magazine)
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