An early Frank Capra effort made during The Pre-Code Era, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) is a dramatic film following naïve missionary, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck), as she is thrown into the midst of the Chinese Civil War.
After being hit unconscious, Davis finds herself in the hands of General Yen (Nils Asther), an interesting man from a different world — or so Megan thinks. The film explores Davis contradicting feelings; she is aroused and confused by this seemingly cruel man. Of course, her inherent prejudices stop her from daring to realize her love, and her naiveté proves to be folly, especially when it comes to her feelings towards Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), the servant to General Yen.
Yes, a film from 1933 explores racism, sexual awakening, and doesnt present a caricature of a Chinese man (at least for its time, it shows an Asian man who isnt used for comedic purposes or a cartoonish villain).
Unfortunately, a Swedish actor in yellow face plays General Yen. It's important to note that this film is a product of its time; it's not perfect, but it goes where almost no films of that time, or even now, dared go.
Tropes found in this work are as follows:
- Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: Megan is sent to General Yens room. She's frightened as General Yen plays music and makes small talk, trying to see what interests her. She bursts into tears, because unfortunately, she thinks Yen is going to rape her. Yen is deeply hurt by this since he had no intention of doing something so vile. He realizes that Megan still thinks of him as some savage.
- Asian Speekee Engrish: Thankfully, averted. They have accents, but it isn't played up to ridiculous levels.
- Better to Die than Be Killed: General Yen keeps a vial of poison for this purpose. He ends up using it once he's abandoned by all his underlings, with only Megan at his knees pledging to never leave him.
- Bilingual Bonus:
- In the beginning of the movie, a woman says she can hardly wait to see the bride and groom at the wedding kiss. The man beside her scolds her by saying "Amelia! Skäms du inte?"note
- In-Universe, a plot point on a couple of occasions. Both of these scenes underline the missionaries' utter ignorance of Chinese culture:
- Early in the film, Bob asks Yen for a safe conduct pass so he can rescue the orphans. Yen, who is contemptuous of missionaries, writes out a "pass" in Mandarin that actually says "This fool prefers going to war rather than the arms of his loving wife. General Nobody." This gets Bob and Megan into a lot of trouble.
- Later in the film, Mah Li asks Megan to take her to the Buddhist temple to have her prayers read by the monk. The "prayers" are, in fact, the secret intelligence that Mah Li is passing to Yen's enemies, intelligence that is written down by operatives hidden behind a curtain as the monk reads them out. Megan doesn't speak Chinese either, so she stands there dumbly unawares.
- Condescending Compassion: It seems that all the Christian missionaries in the film have this fault. They believe themselves to be morally, socially, and culturally superior to the Chinese, and therefore, they must pity and help them.
- Disposable Fiancé: Bob is of the bland perfection type. He postpones his marriage to Megan—he hasn't seen her in three years— because he wants to save an orphanage first. Noble, yes, but he'll never put Megan first in their marriage.
- Erotic Dream: Megan has this at her stay in Yens summer palace while watching officers and their lovers frolic outside her window. It consists of Megan trapped in her room, and having someone trying to break down her door. The camera pans and viewers see an awful Looks Like Orlok caricature of an Asian man: long nails, pointy ears, and ready to prey upon Megan. The camera then pans to her window, where viewers see a masked man, ready to save her. He kills the caricature and embraces Megan. He takes his mask off, and its General Yen. They kiss, and Megans world seems to be spinning. Its necessary to point out that the 1930s had miscegenation laws, so this would have shocked viewers (and did!).
- Fanservice: It's The Pre-Code Era, so we get a couple of scenes with Barbara Stanwyck wearing nothing but a slip.
- Good Is Dumb: Yen is about to execute Mah Li for spying against him. Megan the naively idealistic missionary successfully begs him for mercy, promising that she'll be responsible for Mah Li and that Mah Li won't betray them. Mah Li promptly betrays them, leading to Yen's destruction.
- Have a Gay Old Time: "I had visions of making General Yen the biggest thing in China. But you sure queered that beautifully."
- Love Makes You Dumb: "I say, ever since this American girl came here, you've been off your nut."
- Oblivious to Love: Megan times one hundred.
- Old Money: Megan comes from an old Puritan family, and her father is a publisher.
- Selective Obliviousness: Megan cannot accept the fact that she has feelings for General Yen.
- Shot at Dawn: A firing squad wakes up Megan in the morning, much to her horror. Yen matter-of-factly explains that his province is already experiencing a famine, so he shoots his prisoners because he doesn't have the rice to feed them.
- The Stoic: General Yen is the embodiment of this trope. Even after his troops desert him, and he loses all his war funding, hes calm and collected.
- Together in Death: General Yen, and even Jones in the end, believes that somewhere in the afterlife, Megan and him can be together as spirits.
- Turn the Other Cheek: Megan asserts that if General Yen does this with the treacherous Mah Li, she will change for the better. It doesnt work out that way. Mah Li continues to send secret messages, giving away the Generals plans to his enemies. Megan, in turn, causes his ruin.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Megan is this. Even with the horrendous backdrop of civil war, she continues to put faith in the goodness of people even if it isnt deserved. Ironically, she cant do this with General Yen.
- Yellow Face: During this time, American films were not allowed to have Asian men or women play a starring role in a film with a white love interest, so yellowface was used. To modern viewers, it is cringe-worthy to see. At least Bitter Tea, unlike the bulk of films with yellowface, treats General Yen as an actual person rather than a caricature.
- Yellow Peril: Surprisingly averted, despite the use of Yellow Face.