Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Eastern Boys and Western Girls. Broken Blossoms: A Review

BROKEN BLOSSOMS

After he was pilloried (with justification) for portraying African-Americans as simpletons whose only wish is to ravish beautiful Aryan girls in The Birth of A Nation, I imagine D.W. Griffith wanted to prove that he was not a bigot.  Griffith, we should remember, was also a Victorian gentleman, given to sentimentality.  How better to mix both things with Broken Blossoms (or The Yellow Man and The Girl), a film where the Asian is portrayed positively (which even today is a rare event) and is filled with those tender moments that appeal to readers of Dickens?  

We begin in the mysterious East (presumably China), where the Yellow Man* (Richard Barthelmess) embarks on a missionary journey to the West.  He is a gentle soul, one who will bring the teachings of the Buddha to the Barbarian West (as Michael Wood likes to call us).  Soon, however, it is the Barbarian West that teaches the Yellow Man a thing or two, in particular how ugly the Western world and mind can be.  He grows disillusioned with his mission, and now is a simple shopkeep in the Limehouse district of London, where the Asian population has congregated.

Here also lives Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), a professional boxer who is also a brute of a man.  He is ruthless towards his daughter, Lucy (Lillian Gish).  She is a gentle soul who endures so much brutality by her father.  She flees, and crashes upon the Yellow Man's shop.  He has taken her into his heart, and now, moved by her state, takes her in.  He gives Lucy shelter and shows her the first kindness she has ever known, even giving her something she's never had: a doll. 

Battling Burrows hears about how his daughter is with the Chinaman (as he would see him as), and is enraged.  After defeating his latest challenger, he heads to the shop.  The Yellow Man had left to buy flowers for his 'White Blossom', so Burrows is free to drag Lucy back to their house.  The Yellow Man arrives too late, and goes after them, but not without taking a gun.  As befits a good Victorian story, the innocent die (as do the guilty).

At a crisp (no pun intended) 90 minutes, Broken Blossoms flows quickly, perhaps too quickly.  It would have been nice to see the Yellow Man attempt to bring his faith to the Barbarian West and seeing him rejected, to see how his faith was so shaken that he grew disillusioned with the world.  In terms of plot, this is probably the film's only real weakness. 

Griffith had not lost his ability to craft films and draw great performances out of the actors.  There were the now-typical (but then-innovative) flashbacks he used so well.  The best is when the Yellow Man reflects on how the only joy he has in Limehouse is when he is in the opium den (I suppose this might appear to be a cliche with Chinese characters, but we see more signs of the times in Broken Blossoms).  As he reflects on where his life is now, we get a quick (and beautifully shot) scene of the Temple Bells ringing in far-off China.  The psychological connection drawn in a short sequence that ties in emotionally to the character is one of the things that elevates Griffith to being the first cinematic genius and revolutionary filmmaker. 

In terms of performances, Gish is simply beautiful as the much-abused Lucy.  At one point, her father demands that she smile.  The way she forces a little smile on her face will simply break your heart.  Gish is perfect in Broken Blossoms, never overacting, which makes the scenes where she is brutalized and beaten by her father all the more wrenching to see.  Crisp (who would go on to have a long career in sound films, giving lie to the idea that silent film actors had no voices) is also perfect as the brute.  He is always short-tempered, with a menacing face, and how he carries himself physically allows you to believe he is a heartless bully.  Barthelmess brings a weariness yet hopeful performance as the Yellow Man.  Granted, he is not convincing as a Chinese man, but minus that fact Bathelmess is extremely gentle and loving.  At one point, where he comes upon Lucy's hair, you can see how her scent enraptures him.  It's not overblown, but we can still see these great touches in the film.

We can see how Broken Blossoms is reflective of the bigotry of the early Twentieth Century.  The word "chink" is used more than once; even Lucy says in one intertitle, "What makes you so good to me, Chinky?", which may be jarring to our Twenty-First Century eyes (although we can excuse this as Lucy's innocence and ignorance speaking rather than racial animosity on her part).  However, Broken Blossoms, in its way and for its time, is remarkably tolerant, even progressive, in its portrayal of Asians in film.  Unlike other films that portrayed a "Yellow Menace", Broken Blossoms has a sympathetic Asian character.  The Yellow Man is the hero of the film, and its the white character who is the evil one.  The most overt reflection of tolerance is when we learn just how ugly Battling Burrows is.  "Above all, Battling hates those not born in the same great country as himself".  In the silent era, I doubt a more direct attack on xenophobia was ever presented, condemning this narrow view. 

I would argue the flaws in Broken Blossoms are the melodramatic aspects of the story where the characters tend to be one-note (the gentle Chinese, the brutal boxer, the innocent waif), and in the version I saw, the score.  The composer for this version, Al Kryszak, wrote music that felt out of place.  It's one thing not to have a Far East-influenced score (David Lean's A Passage to India had no sitars in the music, although when you have Maurice Jarre you don't need much else), but the use of a guitar was to my mind rather bizarre.  Having Spanish-sounding music for a story about an Asian is a bit like having a mariachi score for a film about Shaka Zulu: it doesn't sound right.  Moreover, there are moments of actual silence during Broken Blossoms, which again doesn't look or sound right.

Broken Blossoms is bathed in sentimentality and has an Anglo as a Chinese character (again, this was the way things were in 1919, so we mustn't be too harsh on that aspect).  However, there are beautiful moments both in terms of acting and imagery that lift Broken Blossoms into a film that still can be enjoyed and can move audiences today.     

DECISION: B-

*Don't get mad at me.  That is how he is billed, though more than likely his character's name would be Cheng Huan, given the name of the Limehouse shop he owns probably bears his name.  If the Chinese tradition of placing the family name first is maintained, then he would be Huan Cheng.  Again, sign of the times. 

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