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The Bitter Tea of General Yen

(1933 b 88')

En: 6 Ed: 7

Frank Capra directed this story of an American missionary's fiancée detained by a Chinese warlord.

As refugees pour into Shanghai from burning Chapei, a bishop at a social gathering pities Megan Davis for what she'll have to face in marrying a missionary. A car runs over Megan's rickshaw boy, but General Yen (Nils Asther) tells Megan (Barbara Stanwyck) he is lucky to die. Dr. Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon) can't marry Megan until he rescues some orphans in Chapei, and he must get a pass from General Yen. Megan goes with him and waits in the car. Yen gives Strike a note in Chinese saying, "This fool prefers civil war to the loving arms of his bride. General Nobody." The soldiers stop Strike and laugh at his pass. He and Megan get the six children in the orphanage; but amid a battle Megan is wounded.

Megan comes to on General Yen's train and is given tea by pretty Mah-Li (Toshia Mori). Jones (Walter Connolly) tells Yen he has raised the money and that he should send Megan back right away. Megan hears a firing squad outside her window, and Yen orders it moved out of earshot, explaining they cannot feed prisoners. Yen tells Jones he is not sending her back because the newspapers reported her dead. Megan declines Yen's dinner invitations and gives Mah-Li notes to Robert; but she shows them to Yen and puts them in a drawer. Megan fantasizes (or dreams) a devilish Chinese man breaks in and attacks her; she is rescued by a man in western clothes who, turning out to be Yen, kisses her. The suave Yen assures Megan he will protect her and says the Chinese are most artistic. Mah-Li is seeing Captain Li and asks for Megan's help.

In silk Megan dines with Yen, Jones, Captain Li, and Mah-Li. Jones is milking the province of money, which is on a train. Mah-Li is suspected of betrayal. Yen takes her bracelets and gives them to Megan. Yen tells Megan he can control the greedy Jones, but he mistrusts Strike's devotion to God. Megan prefers Strike and gives the bracelets back to Mah-Li. Megan asks Yen not to murder Mah-Li. Yen says Captain Li is his hostage from a wealthy family. Megan pleads for Yen to love unconditionally and says all are one flesh and blood. This moves Yen to ask Megan to be a hostage for Mah-Li's loyalty, and she agrees. Megan asks Mah-Li not to see Captain Li again.

Jones tells the money train to move as another train arrives with soldiers, who begin a battle. Mah-Li is gone, and Jones shows Yen the evidence of her betrayal. Megan accepts the blame, and Yen says her life is forfeited. Yen was going to kill Megan and follow her, but he lets her go. Yen rings, but no one comes. He puts poison in his tea. Megan returns and tells Yen she'll never leave him; then she cries. Yen drinks the tea and dies. In the final scene Jones tells Megan how Yen lost his province, his army, and his life, though he believed we never die but only change.

This film reflects the chaos in China during this era. Yen loves the subtlety of Chinese culture, yet represents its worst element as a ruthless warlord. Megan believes in Christian love; her trust in Mah-Li is betrayed, causing the general's downfall, not necessarily a bad result.

Copyright © 1999 by Sanderson Beck

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