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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
Filmed in 1943 on the MGM lot in Culver City during the Second World War, the film features an unusual assortment of non-Asian actors with odd accents playing Chinese and Japanese: Russian-born and Stanislavski-trained Akim Tamiroff as Wu Lien; Turhan Bey, Viennese born son of a Turkish father and Czechoslovakian mother as the middle son, Lao Er Tan; New England patrician Katharine Hepburn as his wife; American Aline MacMahon, no longer one of the wisecracking Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), as the wife of Ling Tang; English born Henry Travers (best remembered as Clarence the Angel from It's a Wonderful Life (1946)) as the Third Cousin;" Irish-America J. Carrol Naish as the Japanese Kitchen Overseer; and finally Jewish-American Robert Lewis, co-founder of the Actors Studio and Meryl Streep's teacher at the Yale Drama School as the Japanese Captain Sato. See more »
"Do not be troubled, my son. It is often good to beat a woman."
Pale imitator of The Good Earth that lacks that film's style or heart. The backdrop is 1930s China and the Japanese invasion. The cast is made up of white people playing the Chinese parts and, actually, that's not a deal-breaker for me. I recognize and accept the time in which this was made so the yellowface is not something that outrages me. Although admittedly the constant close-ups of Katharine Hepburn making silly faces while made up the way she was made it a lot harder to tolerate. Anyway, the problem I have with this movie is not the white actors playing Chinese characters. The problem I have is that they play these characters like they aren't real human beings.
The script does the cast no favors but the actors have to own their performances here, no matter how respected they are (Hepburn and Walter Huston, this means you). The portrayal of Chinese people here is condescending and, frankly, insulting. They don't seem like human beings with real thoughts and emotions. They are played like aliens who imitate human emotions rather than actually experiencing them. They spew forth fortune cookie dialogue and, despite the movie being in English, talk as though English was a completely foreign language to them. It's really very stupid and impossible to take seriously. I have a hard time trying to decide if this is Hepburn's worst role or if that honor goes to "Spitfire," where she played a hillbilly named Trigger.
It's interesting that this was made by politically and philosophically enlightened types, considering their treatment of "furners" here is so offensive. I'm sure those involved with the making of this mess meant well but good intentions is only an excuse that will get you so far. Their hearts may have been in the right place but their heads were up their...well, you know.
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