Sony // 1932 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // March 24th, 2014
They found a love they dare not touch!
A few weeks back, I reviewed a Sam Fuller movie called The Crimson Kimono that, from the cover, basically guaranteed an insanely racist anti-Asian movie. But that didn't make sense because, while completely crazy, Fuller was no racist. It turns out that the marketing, apparently, was designed to stoke latent post-war bigotry out of masses, because the movie is the specific opposite of what I thought it would be. But that doesn't mean that didn't happen all the time in the early days of film; Orientalism was all over the place from the silent days on. This is proven to me once again in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, everything I expected from the previous movie and a plainly awful experience.
Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck, The Miracle Woman) is a young woman who has come to China to marry her missionary husband. Trouble is, when she arrives, an uprising breaks out, the couple gets separated in a crowd, and Megan gets knocked over the head. Her boyfriend, in classic romantic fashion, just goes away, while General Yen (Nils Asther, Laugh, Clown, Laugh) takes her away to his palace to keep her safe. She feels, though, that she's been kidnapped, and for good reason, but slowly, in spite of her rampant anti-Asian views, she falls in love with Yen and forgets about her original romance.
I'll grant that I'm viewing The Bitter Tea of General Yen from a 21st Century perspective, but I really can't do anything else. Almost from the first scene, racism is thrown in the viewer's face and it's unwatchable. A conversation between Barbara Stanwyck and an older preacher about the savagery of the Chinaman turns into a fast pan to a sniveling, moustache-twirling Chinese villain. That guy isn't actually a character, though; just a caricature of the mysterious Asian man whose intentions, while totally unknown, are probably sinister.
But they're not, and that's the really weird thing about The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Every shot, every angle, and every line of dialog is delivered in such a way as to make General Yen, not the previous Chinese man (I promise I'll never use the Chinaman term again, but it was appropriate for the situation), seem like a slaver, but he's actually a really nice guy. Over ninety minutes, Megan discover that, indeed, not every Chinese person is a disgusting heathen, but of course just one of them.
And, of course, that one Chinese person is actually Dutch. Not in the movie, but in real life, which is nothing new, but to pretend that Nils Asther, from one of the world's whitest countries, is Asian is preposterous and insulting. It's 1932 and I recognize that that the world was a lot different. Orientalism was popular and director Frank Capra (The Miracle Woman) is trading on it big time here.
Virtually unwatchable, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is saved in a tiny way by another fine performance from Stanwyck and less-than-usual woodenness of Nils Asther, terrible makeup and accent aside. Otherwise, it's a racist, uninteresting story. There are plenty of movies from this era that you probably haven't seen yet. Try one of them.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen appears in all its racist glory from Sony on their Choice Collection on-demand service. The full frame image is perfectly acceptable, with accurate contrast and not too much damage for its age. The mono sound, too, is fine, but nothing special. There are no extras on the DVD.
Well, sometimes it's good to see the way that non-white characters were treated in the early decades of cinema, I guess, but that's a fact of history and, in no way, the marker of a movie anybody would actually want to watch. The Bitter Tea of General Yen is absolutely one of the most racist movies that I've ever seen and, even for Barbara Stanwyck, who I will always love, there is zero reason to watch this movie.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1932
MPAA Rating: Not Rated