Made just before the Hays Code made its subject matter all but taboo, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is one of the first pictures to deal with the topic of interracial romance. Luckily, this was directed by Frank Capra, so you know it’s at the very least going to be well made. This also stars Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther as the couple in question, a young woman in Shanghai and the warlord of a side of a civil war, the titular General Yen.
The film’s production value is well utilized; I was reminded often of Shanghai Express and its grungy, dilapidated scenery and oftentimes claustrophobic setting. I was much more taken with Stanwyck in this one than I was in Stella Dallas, though she arguably gives a better performance in the latter; I can perhaps attribute this to Capra’s great handling of the situations and characters, making each of them relatable in some way. The one major problem I had was unfortunately central to the film: the actual romance. There was nothing in the film that really drew the two characters together; it only seemed that the general was always in love with Stanwyck, and Stanwyck had some odd dreams that out of nowhere featured the general in romantic situations. Nothing was spurred by anything, there was no cause and effect; the film just leaped straight to the effect and hoped we wouldn’t give consideration to the cause.
This film was good, and there are a lot of good things going for it, but the problem of the central romance was so glaring to me that it was too hard to believe anything the film presented to me. You might find your experience a little more sentimental than I did, but I couldn’t overlook the disbelief of the situation. The acting is well done, the film is well shot and well lit; it’s a great film all around, it’s just the story that I had a hard time with.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10