The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

  • Directed by Frank Capra. (Edit: With 10 minutes left in this film, I remembered this fact & was like, “Wait, what?!”)
  • While there is chaos & destruction on the refugee-filled streets of Shanghai – all the rich white people are throwing a fancy wedding, completely ignoring the suffering & the mayhem that surrounds them. Classic!
  • The bride is one Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck). On her way to the clean rich people house, a car runs down her rickshaw driver, and she demands that passersby help him & give him medical attention.
  • The passenger of the car at fault does not seem to give a hoot about the injured rickshaw driver, and mostly just stares at Megan Davis like she’s a loon. This man – I suspect – is the titular Mr. Yen. What a goddamn charmer.
  • So Bob the groom (Gavin Gordon) finally arrives & is like, “There are orphans I must help! We have to delay the wedding!” (paraphrased). Megan’s like, “Whatever, bro. Let’s go save us some orphans!” (also paraphrased).

The owner of the rich white-people-filled house (aka the orchestrator of the wedding) is very distressed about this. Her flower arrangements will wilt!!!

  • Bingo! The passenger from the Car of Violence was indeed our General Yen (Nils Asther).
  • General Yen does not like the orphans and does not want to give Bob a permit to go help them. But he writes one anyway because of politics. Or rather appears to write one because of politics.

“Able to read Chinese yet, Doctor?” asks General Yen, concurrently writing him a note that reads:

“This fool prefers civil war to the loving arms of his bride” and signs it “General Nobody.”

  • Rough night, Bob. Rough night.
  • As they’re trying to cart the orphans off to safety, a man clubs both Bob & Megan. (??? I don’t know, y’all – but it happens.) Megan wakes up aboard General Yen’s military train, and Bob…? Who the hell knows. Maybe he woke up somewhere – maybe he didn’t. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.
  • General Yen’s digs are niiiice. Minus the perfect view of the executions taking place in the courtyard. We could all do without that part.
  • Oh, how cute – General Yen has moved the executions “out of earshot” of the flinching Megan. Swoon!
  • Bob’s alive, they say. But thanks to the instability of the country’s transportation systems while this civil war is raging, there is no real way for Megan to be sent back in his direction. This seems accurate, though it’s clear General Yen would prefer Megan to stick around for always (who the hell knows why – he’s only had like…5 conversations with her & they’ve all been brief & combative in tone).
  • General Yen just lectured Megan on the importance of the arts in Chinese culture.

GY: Okay, now will you come to dinner with me?

Megan: Yes, but only because I know how talented Chinese painters & musicians are.

(Obviously I’ve paraphrased this exchange – but plot-wise, this is exactly what happened. He didn’t even show her any examples of Chinese paintings or play her any examples of Chinese music. He’s basically just like, ‘Have you seen our paintings? Or heard our music? ‘Cause it’s really good.’ And Megan’s like, ‘Wow – I hadn’t considered that. Does this cancel out all of the executions you’ve carried out & make it okay for me to fall in love with you? Maybe!’)

  • S0 – dinner is awkward. Mah-Li (Toshia Mori) – who is both Yen’s woman & Megan’s attendant – is in love/league with Captain Li (Richard Loo), one of General Yen’s advisors, and Jones (Walter Connolly) can’t help bringing this up every 3 or 4 minutes. In response to him shoving this information down everyone’s throats for an hour, General Yen takes all of the rings off Mah-Li’s fingers and gifts them to Megan. Megan says, ‘Uh, no. Don’t want them.’ Well, that’s too bad – because Yen has them delivered to her room like…5 minutes later, anyway.
  • Y’all – this plot is crazy. General Yen has now given an order of death to Mah-Li, based on her alleged betrayal of him.
  • Is this a book that was adapted into a film? Because this story feels like it’s jumping from moment to moment, not really bothering to develop or provide the details in between – which is often a thing that happens when a too-long book is made into a too-short movie. It feels weird and rushed, and like it’s skipping over more than it should be, when it comes to plot development. We’re well over halfway through, and I feel zero emotional interest in any of the people or things transpiring, which I really wish wasn’t the case. (Edit: Yes, this was based on a 1930 book by Grace Zaring Stone. Maybe I will try to read it one day, and it will make the movie appear a lot less jumpy.)
  • Oh, whoa! So Mah-Li is really & truly a goddamn traitor! See…after Megan convinces Yen to spare Mah-Li’s life, Mah-Li thanks her by making daily trips to the temple to have prayers of forgiveness read aloud by the temple’s leader. Except they are not really prayers of forgiveness – they are GOVERNMENTAL SECRETS, and a couple of Mah-Li’s conspirators are hiding behind a curtain, copying everything down!!! What a devious little trickster she is! Megan needs to learn herself some Chinese ASAP!
  • (Side note: Did you know that Nils Asther lived to be 84?! Way to go, man! That’s awesome.)
  • Mah-Li’s temple-relayed secrets led to a surprise ambush carried out by a cargo train full of Yen’s enemies (which henceforth shall be referred to as ‘Yenemies’). When Jones reports this news to Yen, Yen says, “Damn it…always gotta be a fuckin’ train.”

(That last part isn’t true – he doesn’t really say that. But he probably thought it, or something close to it, so whatever.)

  • Nils Asther kinda outshines Barbara Stanwyck in this, you guys. I’m genuinely impressed.
  • WTF, MAN?!?!
  • So, uh…after the train ambush, Yen’s team is pretty much wiped out, and everyone left at Yen’s palace decides to flee, based on the impending threat of the Yenemies. Yen’s not about fleeing, though – so he stays, as does Megan because…well, we really don’t know why she stays. I guess because she’s a dummy, maybe. Anyway, Yen’s like, ‘I love you, but I’m not gonna waste my time on you if the feeling’s not mutual,’ and Megan’s response is basically to cry & run away to her room.

Not long after this happens, Yen takes a tiny poison bottle from his dresser drawer, dumps it into his tea, & is about to drink it…when suddenly a BEDAZZLED (this is the exact right word to use, trust me) Megan reappears & says “I couldn’t leave you,” and begins to sob in Yen’s lap.

At this point, as a viewer, you’re like, “Oh, sweet – I guess they’ll live happily ever after in Yen’s giant, vacant palace. Cool.” BUT THEN YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPENS? YEN PICKS UP THE GODDAMN POISON TEA & DRINKS THAT SHIT DOWN ANYWAY.


  • The movie ends with a drinking (& Travelin’) Jones sailing back to Shanghai with Megan, speculating about Yen’s beliefs on the afterlife and whether or not Megan will marry Bob-o.
  • Weird-ass movie, y’all. Not sure what I think about it – other than being pretty amazed at its uniqueness within the context of 1933.



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