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Friday, September 20, 2013

TAKE One, Two, Three: Yen's "Sin" - [Part 1]

Despite the obvious discomfort the title of this little ditty inspires today,
Chaney's studied, soul crushing portrayal of Chinaman "Yen Sin" in
 Shadows was one of the most socially groundbreaking in film, and
the film was deemed one of the most important of the year. 

As an artistic medium, the realm of cinema is fueled not only by the desire to entertain but by the desire for change. One can stare at a painter's perfect replica of a bowl of fruit, but it is the surreal, impressionistic, cubist, what-have-you interpretations that draw the most mental attention. At times, we don't like being provoked or prodded from our comfort zones, but our minds also subconsciously relish the opportunities such instigations reveal-- whether the our response is to slam the door shut or kick it wide open.

Film has contributed greatly to mankind's discovery of himself-- emotionally, intellectually, and socially. There are steps forward that often look a lot like steps back. For example, unpacking prejudice has not been a challenge perfectly met by the industry. The ways in which different races, sexual orientations, religions, etc. have been portrayed on screen fall anywhere between the realm of outright bigotry and emphatic reevaluation. Somewhere in the median is the awkward attempt to "classify"-- to define our differences and thus quell our panphobia by making the conflicting, different faces around us manageable. Categorical. The obvious cliches become accepted facts that pepper public perception, even if they can sometimes be true. (I am a blonde white girl from Kentucky, so I can neither confirm or deny whether there is some strain of goat DNA in my bloodstream). With the usual mixed messages, various mediums have often made great steps to abolish stereotypes by cringingly abiding by them at the same time (see former piece on this effect on the African American demographic here).

Some of the most fascinating justifications Hollywood has given for man's occasionally blatant racism is the depiction of the "other" as a sexual threat, a mere fetish, or an outright perversion. Second only to the African American stereotype-- who was and often still is broadcast as a violently potent and thus feared sexual group-- is that of the Chinese. Shrouded in mysticism, the "oriental" class of film characterization is projected as literally from another world. China is not another country; it is another planet. Their customs, their religion, their collective way of life, is both embraced and condemned in the films of the past. On the screen, they are silent, ghost-like creatures who move in small, shuffling steps and appear always in clouds of opium smoke. Their posture is nearly inverted, as if they are making themselves purposely smaller and less imposing, apologizing for their presence in the white man's shadow. 

Sessue Hayakawa, the unexpected Japanese film star, played Chinese characters
interchangably in his career. Here is plays the sinister villain betraying well-
established racial lines in
Cecil B. DeMille's bold film The Cheat.

For the most part, the Chinaman is represented as humble, obedient, and-- to the caucasian eye-- humorous in his ancient, spiritual ideas and backward social indentity. He is a non-progressive, stuck in the past. He is a strange pet, an alien, thus naturally viewed as asexual for comfort's sake. The women of Chinese descent, conversely, are portrayed as beautiful and servile, sexual objects. They don't talk back. They don't even raise their voices. This is comforting. The Chinese in film seem to "know their place," in other words. Their subservience makes them less threatening than the African American, whom is identified automatically as a possible enemy-- a product of our subconscious fear that he will rise up and vengefully pay us back for our prior, inhuman enslavement of them. The Native American is similarly labeled a savage-- who too holds an understandable grudge-- because we color him onscreen with the war paint of our own design. We stole his land after all, so we must cast him as the demonic beast of the West desperately need of civilizing and likewise viewed as a threat to civilization to apologize to ourselves for it. The Chinaman is different. He was a visitor-- not an invader nor a captor-- to our land after we had claimed it. We don't fear him but instead view him with a dormant, skeptical eye. That is, at least until he tries to play lover...

The fetishist perspective of the bold, romantic ladder-climbing minority is overflowing with messages of insecurity and discrimination. As the early days of heavily censored Hollywood would not allow for even the intimation of a sexual relationship between members of two different races, the fate of the Chinese-American's visual storytelling was left in the hands of white actors in "yellow face." The effect, when not in the hands of artistic empaths like Lon Chaney, produced a cosmetic nightmare: an exaggerated, serpentine gaze, a tightened face free of character, and a thin lipped hard line for a mouth. The women were allowed more beauty, portrayed as exotic flowers to feed a man's sensual curiosity, but they too were displayed with the subliminal context of distaste if not disgust. They are creatures, play things at best, but never respected as wholly human. They are but half real-- not wife material, in any case. Both male and female, they are relics of a time that no longer exists and perhaps never did; strange fossils who simply refuse to expire.

In my examination of these themes, I had a plethora of films to choose from: Where East is East, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Letter, The Toll of the Sea, Mr. Wu, The Good Earth, up to the more contemporary The Lover. I've selected three of my favorites, which will varyingly abide and examine the common through line of interracial romance. In all cases, the Chinese counterpart is deemed correct in the passionate worship of the white woman (or man), but to try to take this obsession to a place of reality is read as a damnable thing. The price paid is always death. The subjects: Broken Blossoms, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and Piccadilly.

~     ~     ~

Lillian Gish seeks comfort from Richard Barthelmess-- but only at a
respectful distance-- in Broken Blossoms.

One would hardly list D.W. Griffith as a pioneer of unbiased racial translation, but for all his seeming disdain for the African American element, his opinion of the Chinese in Broken Blossoms seems to be much more appreciative. At least in his own imagination, and the way he presents Richard Barthelmess as "The Yellow Man"-- literally, that is his name-- Griffith has an at least superficially poetic view of the race. All of the romantic ideals he preaches throughout his films-- innocence, purity, a desire for good-- are displayed by Barthelmess in a surprisingly moving performance of conflict and heartbreak. That being said, Yellow Man may be allowed elevation in a spiritual sense, but socially there can be no line stepping. He is still referred to as "Chinky"-- an alleged term of endearment.

The plot concerns Yellow Man's unspoken love for "Lucy"-- Griffith's ultimate muse, Lillian Gish. Gish uses her usual incandescent emotional brawn to portray this diamond in the gutter angel, who lives in terror of her father. Dad is "Battling Burrows," (Donald Crisp) and he violently abuses Lucy verbally, physically, and probably sexually, consequently molding her into an impossibly sad wisp of a girl, both stunted in maturity and broken in spirit. After one of her thorough lashings, Lucy stumbles and collapses into what turns out to be Yellow Man's store. He finds her on the verge of death. The doting lover takes her in and nurses her back to health, all while living out his greatest private fantasy-- to be under the same roof with the woman he loves and give her what he can of his heart. Of course, he has to hide the truth depth of his feelings. He is dirty, and she is clean.

The sheer, hysterical terror that Gish exhibits on her face and in her body
when Burrows is near may seem exaggerated and overdone in by today's
standards, but the poignancy of her emotional abandon in the role still
kicks you in the gut.

Griffith does manage to push the envelope here. As usual, while portraying Lucy as a girl-woman-- a feat only an actress of Gish's wisdom and emotional gravity could accomplish with believability-- he too uncovers Yellow Man's sexual side. Beneath society's definition of him as a somewhat androgynous creature, he exhibits the same pulsating, carnal desires of any man. This is a battle that he seems to wage with more success than his white male counterparts. In truth, Yellow Man came to Limehouse, the film's setting, in the hopes of spreading peace and the Confucian ideals of goodness. Yet, in the sophisticated yet oddly untamed space of the Limehouse district, he has has met with little success and instead finds himself accosted at every turn by tempting opium dens, gambling joints, and willing prostitutes. The presence of  Lucy-- the pinnacle of all his sexual torment, now within arm's reach in his home-- demands a restraint that he is barely able to muster. 

In truth, the two lost souls of Yellow Man and Lucy possess an astounding chemistry that makes the audience beg for them to embrace as lovers, and this was assumedly as true during the time of its original release in 1919. However, social mores clearly would not allow such a thing to happen. Ergo, in the story, Yellow Man's yearning sexuality, which grows clearer to Lucy every day, is established as fearful to her. The way she looks at him as he makes his smoldering approach, looking at her like a sinister monster-- a still impressive sequence-- is not a result just of the resultant fear of men her abusive father has stained her with, but that of her own prejudice. Seeing her response when he considers touching or kissing her alerts Yellow Man that he cannot go too far with his affections.

Lucy unconsciously rejects The Yellow Man's intimacy in life, but will
such prejudice and irrational fear follow them to the other side?

The tragedy of this piece is foretold in the title, and the impossibility of the biracial union innately curses at least one of the film's tragic characters to death. One would naturally suppose that the martyred nature of Yellow Man, as Barthelmess has compassionately translated him, in addition to his status as the "other" character-- the eternal, minor minority character who is immediately disposable-- would make the Chinaman the prime candidate for this necessary assassination. Griffith's alternative choice is actually quite liberating. It is Lucy who is killed by her brutish father, then Yellow Man slays him in revenge, and finally takes his own life. The fact that Yellow Man dies for love makes him an unprecedented, heroic character of the 'other' ethnic persuasion. Additionally, Griffith gives the duo a fairy tale ending in an unexpected way. Their voyage to the realm of the after life-- which is marked by the banging of the Buddhist gong-- presents the possibility that the two "broken blossoms" may bloom as lovers there on the other side in the purest sense possible: as the blending of two souls: skinless, faceless, and formless. What is criminal is that this is the length they had to go to attain mutual peace.

This film is truly a beautiful story, and in my opinion it is Grffith's greatest and most unpolluted triumph in terms of story. Obviously, it can clearly be argued that Griffith's respect for the Chinese character exists only because this "sub-group" of humanity is depicted by him as a supplicant before the ethereal, white female. In addition, the director probably vicariously entertained his own sexual fantasies in the story, as was his wont. The male focus on the untouched, virginal female is naturally driven by the desire to make the object unclean in the possession of it. Ergo, the hidden notes of Yellow Man's undeserving, inferior hunger are his Griffith's own.

The positive aspect, of course, is the naked display of goodness and raw humanity present in The Yellow Man. This character ignores his own urges to protect the innocence of the image that Griffith would secretly love to desecrate. The Chinaman betrays his own conscience and religion to avenge Lucy's death, and his personal shame for this makes his suicide even more necessary. Yet, one leaves the story with the subconscious knowledge that it is we-- people in general-- who are the cruel villains and predators of the world, our own savagery destroying what remains of its beauty through our ignorance, cruelty, bias, and fear.

Barthelmess's Yellow Man, while possessing the serpentine gaze, was still
able to overcome the cliches of his character to give him an honest,
sensual, and vulnerable quality that helped balance the racist

images the film may have ignorantly projected. 

Gorgeously shot with Griffith's incomparable eye for detail and visual texture, the environment created is both entrancing to look at and lush even at its disturbing. There too are superb performances  by all concerned, particularly by Gish whose gut-wrenching presentation of fearful hysteria signifies the great torture that her life has been. The moral messages are mixed, but this film, even when awash with controversy, is a sterling example of silent cinema at it best. How do the others fare???

To Be Continued with interpretations of both The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Piccadilly...


  1. This is a rich commentary, Meredith. The two caucasian stars did all they could to convey the Oriental mystique, They were captivating and certainly brought their subtext to the surface beautifully. Yet this movie stands as a reminder that Hollywood established itself as a star-driven industry. And those stars were exclusively white. Imagine what Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong would have brought to these roles. They would have given the white majority a true insight into a culture that had been and still is propagandized against. Just as Griffith used whites to play blacks in BIRTH OF A NATION, and in doing so, laid bare his own prejudices, one can't help but feel uneasy about the heavy-handed subservience that Griffith directed into Gish, his loyal and unquestioning protegee. But in the end, Griffith's genius wins over these minor complaints. Alone, in the dark, BROKEN BLOSSOMS transports us willingly into his persuasive world.

    1. So very, very true my friend. I weep for the work Anna could have done. It is such a crime. At least we get the little bit of her that we have.

  2. Wow! What an interesting and thoughtful piece concerning a subject about which we rarely hear. My knowledge of silent cinema is limited (though not absent), but I hope I can find this film on DVD - you have spurred me to look for it! I really enjoyed Capra's "The Bitter Tea of General Yen," so I am looking forward to your next post. Always enjoyable!

    1. Thanks, Mandy! I hope you are able to view BB. It is truly amazing. I'm glad I encouraged you, haha. You are one of my favorite readers, and I always appreciate your comments. Thanks again, lady! :)