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Ling Tang and his family live on his prosperous farm in rural Southern China and have not yet felt the impact of the Japanese invasion in the North. Tang's two oldest sons, Lao Ta Tan and Lao Er Tan are married and hard working while youngest son Lao San Tan remains a free spirit. Er's wife Jade is also willfully unconventional and desires to exercises her literacy skills by reading books, a most unfeminine practice in 1930's China. Tang's only daughter is married to Wu Lien, a city merchant who profits from selling Japanese goods. When the dreaded invasion reaches their village, the family is scattered as the sons join the resistance while Wu Lien survives by collaborating with the enemy. Written by
While trying hard not to be too condescending to Americans of today who somehow think the world was always as they now see it around them -- this movie was made in 1943, in the darkest midst of the horrific World War II, when America was engaged in a global struggle of epic proportions against the mighty Japanese Empire (and other very powerful allied nations all over the world), and when Manchuria, China and most of Asia were occupied by the very brutal Japanese invaders. The film was released to the public more than a year before that terrible war began to reach a conclusion.
In 1944 America's victory in the Second World War was by no means assured, yet the US was trying to do whatever it could to assist the Chinese against the Japanese while the main US military forces fought the Japanese directly island by island westward across the Pacific. Of particular note is the fact that Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937, and that both suffered under merciless Japanese occupation for years before America formally entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Japanese forces committed brutal atrocities against Chinese civilians and prisoners of war in the Rape of Nanking, slaughtering as many as 300,000 civilians within a month. Before it was over more than 10 million Chinese were mobilized by the Japanese army and enslaved for slave labor and at least 2,700,000 Chinese died. Japanese occupation atrocities against the Chinese included mass killings by airborne gasses on hundreds of separate occasions.
The film, which was being made while all this was going on, but before most of the details were fully known, therefore reflects the American (and western) thinking at the time, as depicted through the keen expert eyes of the great China observer, American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Pearl S. Buck. It also reflects what was available to Hollywood film-makers at that desperate moment. Given the time and the circumstances, the movie does quite an adequate job - all of which undoubtedly explains the involvement in it of the great American actress Katharine Hepburn. The film helped Americans at that time to understand China's desperate situation, why the Chinese were worth assisting, and why the US military, and most Americans at home, were trying hard to do just that at truly great cost. Hepburn's name on theater marquees also ensured that many more people would see the film than otherwise.
Americans in 1944 didn't care one bit that the Chinese characters were being played by Americans; audiences could easily imagine, empathize and understand. Very many of them had already read Buck's novel with the same title, published in 1942, and knew that the famous author, who had written many novels about China, had been a very vocal proponent of American understanding and support of China in her struggle with the Japanese. Pearl S. Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, mainly on the basis of her great China trilogy "The House Of Earth", including its first part, "The Good Earth".
The Japanese surrendered unconditionally to the US on August 14, 1945, and Japanese troops in China formally surrendered to the Chinese a month later, but by then most of Manchuria and China had been destroyed. The people portrayed in the film had seen what the Japanese had done in Manchuria over the previous six years, and then experienced Japanese brutality directly for another eight years. The 14 years of China's monumental struggles in World War II were a pivotal point in China's history. Before the Japanese invasion, China had suffered nearly a century of humiliation at the hands of various imperialist powers and was relegated to a semi-colonial status. However, the war greatly enhanced China's resolve, strength and international status. After the war, the Republic of China became a founding member of the United Nations and a permanent member in the Security Council. China also reclaimed Manchuria.
The movie therefore helps Americans today to understand a most critical moment in China's, and their own, common history, and why it all was, and remains, important.
Old American Soldier
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