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
Frank Capra, good director as he was, was ruthless in his ambition and self-promotion. He began, rather clumsily, as a showy visual director. He quickly realised however that he would get more kudos by refining and restraining his technique. By 1933, he had gained a substantial reputation and enough weight at Columbia studios to push for his own projects. He decided what he would like next was an Academy Award, and thus plumped for this sweeping love story set in foreign climes, conspicuously lavish and action-filled in the cash-strapped early 30s, especially by the standards of "poverty row" studio Columbia. Surely, he no doubt thought, this would strike Oscar gold.
Carpa chose for his star the rising and now very bankable Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck's greatest asset it seems was her ability to show great emotion, even fiery rage, without once slipping into hammy hysterics. She is all cool passion, and it is very effective here. Nils Asther, in the title role, is very good too. He is a little theatrical and stylised in his gesture and mannerisms, but like Stanwyck he is calm and restrained, and certainly resists any temptation to turn the Mandarin general into a crude stereotype. And yet he is full of character. There's one great moment, where he stuffs an unwanted cigarette into the mouth of a guard without even looking round, as casually as if the man was an ashtray. Importantly, Stanwyck and Asther have great chemistry, and the performances all round are very fine.
Carpa himself is obviously trying hard to load the picture with style and atmosphere, with moody lighting and a roving camera. One of his best techniques seems to have been perfected here, and that is his one of having the camera amidst a group of people like an imaginary extra person on the set. A really excellent example of this is in the first scene where the pastor makes his speech. The camera stays fixed, while a number of other silhouetted figures stop to listen. This has the dual function of making us feel like we are part of this community, and of drawing attention to the man and his words. The shot is punctuated by a neat whip pan into a close-up of a Chinese man's face. There is a feeling however that Capra is trying to turn every moment into a climax, and pretty soon the exquisite shot compositions and endless whip pans start to dull in effect. The dream sequence in particular could have been a little less heavy-handed.
All in all, Capra has made a decent little film here. Minimal lighting and a tight editing pattern has cunningly disguised what is actually rather a low budgeted affair. Eerie sound design contributes a lot to the mysterious, oriental feel. But in spite of all the director's best intentions, The Bitter Tea of General Yen was a flop which received exactly zero Oscar nominations. Ironically, while today some may object to Asther performing in yellowface, at the time it was frowned upon for its positive portrayal of interracial love. It is also ironic that, despite all his hopes being pinned on this one, a different Capra movie (Lady for a Day) was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. Lady for a Day is far less ostentatious, but it is a lot more like the homely heart-warming fare for which Capra would later be known. Was Lady for a Day really better received because it was up Capra's street, so to speak? Or did Capra deliberately re-brand himself in the mould of his first Oscar success?
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