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The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)
They found a love they dared not touch!
Filmmaker(s): Frank Capra

An American missionary is gradually seduced by a courtly warlord holding her in Shanghai.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)


I can get value out of pretty much any film, but some are harder work than others because they place impediments. Capra and Spielberg are the leading placers of the leading impediments: representing the world in a way that is ideal, attractive, but presented in such a way that this idealism springs obviously from real life. You don’t go to these films to be challenged, to grow. You don’t go to have something stretched. You do not take away anything to use. You go to be reassured about the intrinsic and inevitable goodness of the world.

I clump these as propaganda. It is okay as long as there is some other value, but with these two guys there is not, except for two good projects, one each. This one is the Frank Capra film that I can stand without mobilising protection.

It is different in superficial ways: it involves scope; there are lots of convincing street and battle scenes. There is no apparent scrimping on the production values in any way. Later, his films would be supported by the studios not only because they were popular, but they were cheap as well. It is also different in that there is an unambiguously unhappy ending.

It is not worth watching, but at least it is not a negative weight in the world.

The story here (since you probably won’t watch it): A ripe young, idealistic woman arrives in China to marry her childhood friend who is a dedicated missionary. “Missionary” here is a placeholder for someone who has a world that is a balance of comfort and need to “convert” others to it.

She encounters a local warlord and becomes his unwilling guest. He is extremely well mannered, but ruthless as a leader. Though he is played by a European with a few Chinese indicators (halting speech and eye makeup), we are meant to understand that the ability to hold this dichotomy is inherently Chinese. Superficially, this is a sort of clash of cultures, but only superficially so. She is far from what we suppose ourselves to be (presuming that the reader is from the west), and that allows us to think that he is as far from his situated reference point.

So we are encouraged to dive into the next level, a woman coming to terms with her sexuality; she finds those terms framed by her host. By the end, her idealism from the former world has been proved bankrupt in such a way that she loses her now love. He dies happy.

It is a pretty complex big movie, Frank about desire sliding frames.

Posted in 2008

Ted’s Evaluation — 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.


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