Well, that was uncomfortable. It’s weird to think that, upon release, The Bitter Tea of General Yen was controversial because it depicted a white woman falling in love with a Chinese man. Nowadays there is a very different source of controversy, the general racism towards Chinese people with titular General Yen being a white Swedish actor in yellowface. This general racism is a real stumbling block when watching this movie, which is even more of a sin given that it features Barbara Stanwyck.
So, why would this film be on the list? It probably helps that this was directed by Frank It’s A Wonderful Life Capra, but also it was daring at the time to depict an inter-racial romance. Sure, he is in yellowface. Sure, he has essentially kidnapped her and this is a Beauty & The Beast Stockholm syndrome style of romance. And sure, the romance really makes no sense whatsoever given that the film takes place over a week and she (a missionary) sees him signing off on the mass execution of his prisoners.
However, groundbreaking is groundbreaking and for the yellowface of the lead, it was a rare film in this era to employ a large number of actors of East Asian descent – including the beautiful (albeit Japanese) Toshia Mori. In a different time, this film would have been the making of Mori who gives the best performance in the ensemble and makes the best of a role that is also steeped in stereotype.
I honestly expected a lot more from The Bitter Tea of General Yen given that it is a Frank Capra production. It was different to see him use more camera tricks compared to his other films I saw from later in his career. However, this just has not aged well and is interesting to see as a specific piece of cinema history about the depiction of inter-race relations, but other than that there are better films that could have been included in the 1001.