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Monday, September 23, 2013

TAKE ONE, TWO, THREE: Yen's "Sin" - [Part 2]

... continued from Part 1's focus on Broken Blossoms-- an examination of the Chinese lover in classic cinema.

Some very daring poster art for the provocative classic,
The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

Everyone's favorite American sentimentalist, Frank Capra, left his small town ways to enter the big leagues when he pushed the themes of interracial romance to the brink in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). The plot of this film is not too far removed from Broken Blossoms-- the white woman comes under the Chinaman's care-- though this time the woman is a passionate missionary out to rescue orphans, and the man is an uncompromising warlord who essentially orchestrates her abduction so he can make her his concubine. Despite appearances, the attraction between "Megan Davis" (Barbara Stanwyck) and "Gen. Yen" (Nils Asther) is mutual, but the racist ideologies that Megan possesses make it just as equally brutal. Her shame over her attraction to the "dirty Chinaman" is hidden behind her cutting, prejudicial denial of Yen's own scintillating desires. In his case, his insecurities are compensated for by his strange blend of stoic and sensual tyranny. The initial effect Yen s on Megan is shock. She seems utterly confused by the fact that he actually appears civilized-- aka  "white" in behavior-- when she and Yen meet by happenstance in an automotive collision that locks them fatalistically together. Under Capra's direction, the story is a near visual portrait of S&M.

Who else but "Stany" could portray a heroine with equal parts smoldering pleasure and pain? An actress of boiling intensity and sensual confidence, she gives Megan a depth and curiosity that slowly seeks to overcome her own misunderstandings coupled with an increasingly volcanic sexual appetite. An adventuress on her way to a boring life as a missionary's wife, it seems that Megan's only reason for choosing her fiancé was the proximity a life with him might bring her to danger and excitement-- foreign places, existential exposure, intense exploration. Dressed essentially as a wolf in lamb's clothing, Megan's thirst for life could easily lead her to a dangerous addiction, and her struggle becomes on of concealing her passion for propriety's sake. She would be labeled a perverse whore  and social disgrace were she to admit her fetish for her mysterious captor. Megan knows that her emotions, or more honestly her primal urges, are viewed as "wrong." It is incorrect to want a member of the other race. She has been taught this all her life, and she spouts the rules of decent behavior even as her eyes and body language communicate that she doesn't believe them.

Babs draws her silken robe closer to her body in Yen's presence, but
she also always looks like she's 3 seconds from ripping it off.

Nils Asther brings an interesting twist to his take on Yen. In his career, he was often chosen to play the "other" foreigner, because of his exotic, almost androgynous features and Swedish accent, which I suppose sounded Asian to  studio producers (???). He played the part of the tempting Indonesian with fellow Swede Greta Garbo in Wild Orchids (1929) and the Turkish police chief "Kadar-Pasha" in Abdul the Damned (1935) to name but two examples. His slithers into his role as the sadistic Yen well, who uses his poise and confidence to cover his learned feelings of inferiority to the white race. However, through  his over-eagerness to please Megan, Yen occasionally shows his hand, his vulnerabilities, and equally masochistic tendencies. These breadcrumbs leading to the torrent of his desire emerge in moments of desperation. Still, Yen is a mystery-- a man difficult to make out. He is part calculating, emotional strategist and part little boy who has just had his hand slapped. He is secretly intimidated by Megan just as much as he is drawn to her, thus he presents himself as an unapologetic, compassionless, and sinister beast, utterly confident in the fact that he will conquer her without having to force himself upon her. This, in turn, arouses the suppressed sex-kitten in Megan, just as her superiority and refusals arouse him.

Yen's still waters are kept calculatingly cool in order to camouflage the intensity
of his underlying passions. He appears as the token "dragon man," but he has
incredible class and patience. His mind games are traps that are impossible
to escape, because one doesn't realize she's in one until it's too late.

The sexual chess game of clean, white beauty vs. dark foreigner is one of worthless resistance. Both players refuse to be the submissive victim, and both are too tough to admit their true desire for each other. It is becomes a taut "wait out the clock" situation to see who will break first; who will first kneel to kiss the foot of the victor. As compared to Lillian Gish, Stanwyck is no girl; she's a woman, and a tough one. She may not be totally aware that her unconscious decisions have led her here, to the place of her unspoken pleasure, but she's not a fool. While she feels her fortifications falling to Yen's curious hold over her, she too knows the repercussions such an affair would bring her, and as a worldly dame she's not about to surrender her reputation for one night of objectification. With a piece of the bigotry chip on her shoulder, she is also a bit disgusted by Yen, but his strange spiritualism and mind-boggling philosophies-- which both adhere to and contradict his actions-- slowly reveal the flesh and blood man beneath the fetish. He is the dark knight of fairy tales, and it is by touching her mind and exposing it to the open world she craves as a human being that he starts winding his way around her heart.

The win of Megan's desire over her prejudice is brilliantly evidenced in the infamous dream sequence. Yen approaches her as a hideous creature of racist stereotypes-- a rat-like face, long nails, a hunched walk-- creating a terrifying, nightmarish blend of xenophobic horror. Moving like a twitching insect, he comes to her bed and puts his claw-like hands upon her. She shrinks away, but she is just as sexually fueled by the indefinite polluting of her body as she is disturbed. Her acceptance of what has been described to her as utterly filthy will actually be her ticket out of the life she finds so bland and constraining.  She partially wants to destroy herself. But, before this happens, a savior arrives as if on the apocryphal white horse to save her. Indeed, he is even dressed in white-- the pure color. The masked hero defeats the Yen sub-creature and then tosses off his own mask, which reveals Yen the man. Truth has defeated stereotype. In her fantasy, Megan abolishes all bigotry, enfolds herself in Yen's arms, and thus acknowledges the fact that He is Man, She is Woman, and the only line between them is that which she draws herself.

The Yen creature accosts Megan in her bed, a representative of all her disgusting
prejudices about the "yellow" sexual villain.

The duo are never permitted to kiss, but thanks to the films release prior to the 1934 production code, the implications of this scene are pretty damn bold and certainly made contemporary audiences of the time... uncomfortable. Though Asther is a Caucasian in make-up, stating a blatant message that a biracial relationship was A-Ok was not yet to be. Thus, the total fusion of these two very representative characters-- the Yen and the Yang (bad pun)-- had to be halted. The road block to their union is, of course, death. After Megan's eventual supplication before Yen, the reality of the game hits home. She comes to him dressed as one of his heavily make-uped and bejeweled concubines, and Stanwyck's tearfully broken performance as she applies these goods to her body, as opposed to washing herself clean, delivers perhaps the most obvious message of all. Yen, at the end of the day, is still a thing, whose touch will contaminate and make her a thing. Megan gives herself up to this. Yen, surprisingly, does not. He fixes himself the titled 'bitter' cocktail that takes his life and ends his beloved's suffering.

In truth, the story never really feels like one of love. This could be because the chemistry between Stanwyck and Asther does not have much fire, the source of the heat coming only from the independent tortures that both are suffering alone. (Hate and love are very closely linked). More particularly, it is a story about man's sexual nature. It is a tale of primal eroticism and pure lust, not romance. Human affection and human desire are too very different things, which is perhaps why Yen sacrifices himself to keep from damaging the girl he respects but who he can't be certain will ever give him her heart.

Yen drinks a toast to his 'bitter' end.

The end is complicated, however. Yen may decide to destroy himself to release his lover, but he may also do so because he has conquered her willpower by earning her submission, and the mental destruction of her is more important than the physical. This could have been the entire goal: to prove through this victory that his manhood is just as potent and effective, if not more so, than a white man's. Therefor, he has justified himself above his level as an 'other' and can now die a man. Still, one is unsettled, as if this film is an incomplete thought whose true fulfillment is not hampered by the director nor the actors but by the time within which it was made. In the end, whether he chooses to or not, Yen must die because he must not touch a white woman. Death is his punishment. for even considering the idea. The fact that he is the one to drink from the well of death is loaded with the implications of his own lingering feelings of inferiority over his heritage. Megan, meanwhile, returns to life as if waking from a dream and entering a nightmare-- forever haunted by a lost and unfulfilled passage to ecstasy.

~     ~     ~

Anna May Wong dances dangerously close to the edge of acceptable, interracial
behavior in Piccadilly.

The final chapter of this (overly long) analysis is a bit different, for in Piccadilly (1929), the punished, exotic Chinese character is a female. Anna May Wong herself could represent the Asian prototype in American cinema, both in terms of her onscreen presence and the way she endured and overcame the constraints of the industry as implied by her race. A Chinese laundryman's daughter, Wong was very much the modern, "American girl" in every way-- minus her parents' heritage. Rebellious, ambitious, sexual, prone to slang, and thrilled by the invigorating changes enjoyed by young men and women of the roaring twenties, had Anna been born white, she could have been one of the biggest leading ladies in film. Being of Chinese descent, her triumph of reaching stardom is not only remarkably impressive, it was unprecedented. This is a testament to her talent and charisma, which broke barriers in the industry. Unfortunately, successes like The Toll of the Sea and Shanghai Express are evenly matched by the never-ending slaps in the face she was to receives. Caucasians actresses were consistently given the roles that should have gone to her. Her place in cinema was that of the perpetual, exotic harlot-- always the concubine, never the bride.

Hence, Anna May's escape to Europe, where life and art were a little more liberal and accepting of varying cultures, perhaps because so many diverse peoples were and are more closely clumped together on the continent. Piccadilly was an incredible success for Anna in Britain. The unarguable star of the film, the story that could very well have revolved around the Piccadilly Club owner "Valentine Wilmot" (Jameson Thomas) and his dancer lover "Mabel Greenfield" (Gilda Gray), is totally usurped by and overshadowed by Anna's performance as "Shosho." A washerwoman at Piccadilly, Shosho is witnessed dancing on a tabletop in the kitchen and entertaining her friends when Valentine walks in and sees her. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful character reveals of all time. Valentine is immediately smitten by Shosho-- the graceful movements of her body seem to glide through the air like the literal steam surrounding her. She instantly intoxicates both him and the audience. 

Valentine selects Shosho as his next concubine, but she will prove to be much
more than the complacent, delicate flower he expected. It will be he
who is tamed by her. 

Naturally, after firing her, Valentine makes her a conquest. This time, however, the shame of the affair will all be on him. While a man is more generally forgiven for his sexual deviances, the idea that Valentine has totally fallen under the spell of a member of an "inferior race" is humiliating to him. Thus, he keeps it a secret, particularly from his public paramour, Mabel. Had Mabel merely been replaced by a new, white lover, Valentine would have easily cast her off; however, as Shosho is the living embodiment of the ultimate sin, his attraction to her is dehumanizing to him. She is his dark side, his 'other,' other lover, so Mabel will be kept on as the dutiful beard of sorts for his social self while he indulges his fantasies otherwise.

The dangerous but desired perception Valentine has of Shosho is at first the product of his own superficial invention, but later Shosho adopts this false characterization and wears it as armor to both conquer him and trump Mabel. The instigation behind Shosho's transference to a villainess is a both financial and vengeful. She is poor and wants the financial support of Valentine, and she is also aware of her inferior standing in society. Her early efforts to rise above both her situation and the social stigma attached to her are later become insufficient. She later craves more than equality-- she wants domination. Thus, when Valentine offers her a chance to perform at the club, Shosho doesn't foolishly grab at the offer nor fall into his sexual trap. She sets one of her own. Before she surrenders to him bodily, she must possess his soul. Longevity will give her a stranglehold over him, and she does not want to be brushed aside as any of the many previous women he has surely gone through like cigarettes.

Shosho takes a fatal swing at the mass of salivating men around her and
makes them her willing suppliants. 

Her winning play is her initial performance, for which she has managed to custom order a gorgeous, expensive outfit for the show, already revealing the power she has gained over her patron. The dance sequence itself is a breathtaking number in which Shosho acknowledges the power of her sexuality and uses it to her advantage. In this moment on stage, with her entrancing, ghostlike movements, she doesn't just own Valentine; she owns all of London. As Shosho continues to spin Valentine into her seductive web, Mabel inevitably catches on and confronts her enemy with a gun. To steal a man from a white woman, the same one who once looked down on her as a mere peasant, is the true jewel in Shosho's crown. Unfortunately, her scandalous ladder-climb ends the only place it can: in death. When she is shot, it is assumed that jealous lover Mabel pulled the trigger, however-- shocker of shockers-- Shosho's friend "Jim" (King Hou Chang) steps up to admit his own guilt and saves Mabel from blame.

Jim's heroism in this act of defending Mabel is also the ultimate insult to his race, as he chooses the protection not only of the white woman but the white race's superiority over the life of Shosho, the woman he loves. However, his murder of her-- a disturbing and gloriously shot sequence-- was one committed less out of jealousy and more as that ever necessary racial punishment. Using the white man to "get by" is something he for which he could forgive Shosho, but she became too greedy. She tried to escape her place in the caste system. Had she become but another one of Valentine's submissive whores, her actions could have been forgiven, but her refusal to obey the laws of alleged modest Asian attitude and social acquiescence was not to be borne. She dared to cross racial lines, and even her brain-washed brethren believed that she had to be stopped. 

Shosho's single eye communicates her sheer shock and terror at witnessing her
friend take aim. One can see how Anna May's performance as a sexual
infection influenced the Asian horror villainesses to come in later films
like Ju-on, Audition, and Ringu.

Despite the dismal ending, this film is spectacular. Beyond the resonating thematic questions it poses, the photography by Werner Brandes and smooth direction by filmmaker/producer Ewald Andre Dupont, are still impressive and transcend the majority of the over-packaged visual stimuli that we're met with on the modern screen. (There is also a surprise Charles Laughton appearance-- never anything to sniff at). Best of all, the film is all Anna, and even as the moderately innocent girl metamorphoses into the Tiger Woman she becomes, you don't blame her. You empathize. In fact, you envy. The success of Piccadilly rests on the fact that the audience is rooting for the villainess because, beneath it all, the villainess is the true victim of the scenario.

~     ~     ~

Lon Chaney as "Yen Sen" in Shadows. The plot of the film concerned the
Christianizing "the heathen," yet Chaney's depiction of the moral and
strong-hearted laundryman did more to reveal the prejudice and
cruelty of the white race and their unjust, uncivilized natures.

All three films depict the societal imposed fate of the Chinese race to be one of inescapable servitude. The culture of the times in which these films were made, particularly the silents, were pleased with and un-intimidated by the people whom they viewed as automatically inferior. The Caucasian majority treasured this minority's modest ways, strict customs, and unobtrusiveness. They did not want these images to change in reality, so they made films perpetuating and perhaps even enforcing them, however subconsciously. Unlike other racial groups, Chinese characters in film were often allowed certain liberties, despite the derogatory way in which they were portrayed. In part, these films project our fascination with them and their beliefs, which we find strange and unusual, yet we simultaneously envy. They are seen as a "simple people" in touch with another, purer level of existence, and they also seem to know something that we do not. Perhaps for this reason alone-- for the questions they raise about our own morality, our values, and our own idols (from movie stars to Jesus Christ)-- the Caucasian ruled industry punished them cinematically. The line in the sand was therefore drawn, and the warning given. While we may live in an multi-racial world, at least in the old days of cinema, there was no room for interracial romance.

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