Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) is headed to Shanghai to wed her childhood sweetheart, Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon), who is living there and working as a missionary.
However, civil war is raging in the area. When the Chapei (Zhabei) district of the city goes up in flames on the night of Megan’s arrival (and the night of the wedding), Bob postpones the wedding in order to save a group of orphans.
Megan and Bob succeed in gathering the orphans, but as they head back to safety they get separated. Megan then gets knocked out and is saved by General Yen (Nils Asther), who captures her and takes her back to his palace by train.
General Yen has a reputation for being very cruel, and Megan sees this side of him – but despite this, she begins to fall for him.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen is one of director Frank Capra’s most highly regarded films today, though the reception wasn’t so great when it was released in 1933. Because the film features the idea of a romance between an Asian man and a white, American woman, its subject matter was seen as scandalous at the time, which led to low numbers at the box office – even though, in typical Hollywood fashion, the Chinese general was portrayed by a Swedish actor.
Despite America’s diversion to interracial relationships during this period, the film was also criticized for a few legitimate reasons. Some of the dialogue does take a stereotypical and sometimes dehumanizing attitude toward the Chinese people, and it doesn’t offer a completely accurate portrayal of the war or the treatment of its prisoners. Still, this is nothing out of the ordinary for a Hollywood film of the 1930s, and the viewer should keep in mind that many Westerners did buy into the stereotypes that are portrayed in the film; it’s a product of its time.
Scandal aside, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a film that grabs the viewer from the start. It opens with the chaos of the war. The words “Shanghai,” “Burning of Chapei” and “Refugees” fly toward the viewer as people are shown running through the streets of the city. Meanwhile, the missionaries find peace among chaos in the home where the wedding is going to take place. But things don’t stay calm for long, as the bride and groom arrive only to leave again to save the orphans.
A bit more chaos ensues as Megan and Bob work to save the orphans and Megan is captured, but once Megan gets over the shock of being “saved” by General Yen, the film becomes quite slow-moving. Rather than focusing on the chaos of the war, the film turns to emotional drama as Megan struggles with her feelings for General Yen, which is an issue just as engrossing, but less action-packed than that which took place earlier in the film.
Though the pace slows, the film never loses the viewer’s interest because the characters and their interactions are so interesting.
Stanwyck gives a fantastic performance, as usual, in a “good woman with a tough edge” character that is somewhat typical of her. She plays well against Nils Asther, and the two have very good tension.
The film is also visually beautiful. Stanwyck’s wardrobe is amazing, a number of shots utilize the double exposure technique (which is a favorite of mine) and the black-and-white cinematography is full of shadowy beauty.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a slow-moving but wonderfully acted and written drama. It gets wrapped up in and ending that is surprising, sad and a bit ambiguous. The score: 5/5