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A story about a forbidden love and the controversial mix of human races, “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” was an extravagant and authentic film, far ahead of its time. Director Frank Capra assumed a difficult script, based on an original novel about an American missionary who falls in love with a Chinese General during the war. The film benefits from the superlative performances of the legendary Barbara Stanwyck (a fine actress even in her youth) and Nils Asther (Swedish actor who accepted to play the role of a Chinese using heavy make-up). The chemistry of Stanwyck and Asther is palpable, even if Asther was the ideal partner of Greta Garbo, with whom he made two silent films. In fact, he was considered the male version of Garbo. Alas, many of his American films are forgettable, but it’s certainly not the case of “General Yen”.

I was very much impressed by this unusual film, with a surreal, exotic atmosphere, sets and costumes. It is quite accurate in portraying the Chinese Civil War and if it had been strictly related to this kind of story, it would have been a good historical film. But the characters are superior even to the story itself. The romance that blossoms between the young American woman and the handsome, rich and powerful Chinese General keeps your attention from the beginning to the end. The end is somehow predictable – and it is not a happy one – but it is delivered as a solution to the heroine’s troubles, thus escaping from both the real and the sentimental imprisonment…

Here is my video tribute to this wonderful piece of the old Hollywood, a gem that was not well received on its original release and that was, unfortunately, forgotten for quite some time, owing to its controversial political and social messages.

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