THIS is a “bitter tea,” sure, but this concoction is also savory, sweet, smoky, spicy, salty and spiked with some surprising intoxicants. It’s less a sipping tea than a multi-course meal that really could use a curating chef and vomitorium. Consider this essay a brief menu listing rather than the full description it deserves.
The movie begins in an impressionistic way. Credits roll over a dragon backdrop with an orchestral interpretation of a broadly Eastern melody. We then briefly see a map of China, followed by a hectic and riotous scene of Shanghai. Gunshots ring out, smoke fills the air, and bodies are physically strewn about.
The screen is then canvassed with the word “Shanghai” with an Eastern stylized font, followed by the phrase “Burning of Chapei” and finally by the word “refugees.”
This sort of vague but effective scene sets a somber tone. It’s a vague and violent first few moments to a film, especially in an era that leaned on long, expository written introductions.
It is then immediately undercut when at a doorway by the side of the street, Westerners are being cheerily greeted by a host. There’s piano party music and an upscale party populated by what we find are upper-class white expats living in Shanghai. They await the arrival of the wedding’s bride and groom: a China-based missionary (Gavin Gordon) and a woman he had dated in the West who was just moving there (Barbara Stanwyck).
The juxtaposition of the chaotic street scene with the deliberately ignorant upper crust is pretty warping to the viewer, and condemning to the people at the party. It could be expected because of the timing of the film for it to take a very pro-Western perspective. Early on, we see this is not the case.
But this movie is imbued with racism. Later in the film, the titular Chinese character is played by Swedish actor Nils Asther, with the viewer forced to assume the production wouldn’t allow a main role to be played by an Asian man.
Again, things are complicated.
A movie with a book’s worth of tangled subjects, “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” is a mostly forgotten film with which contemporary audiences will find plenty of subjects to keep their interest.
(Brian Offenther is a Shanghai-based DJ/freelancer.)
‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ (1933)
• Where to see it: It is available to buy online, stream, and download.
• What to see: Barbara Stanwyck stars as an American woman who moves to Shanghai to be with her Christian missionary husband in war-ravaged Shanghai. After being saved — and then captured — by powerful Chinese warlord General Yen (Nils Asther), she struggles to adjust to her new culture and emerging emotions. This early Hollywood film is directed by legendary Frank Capra and is one of the first to feature a China setting, Mandarin language and multiple ethnic Chinese actors.