Thursday, September 4, 2014

Before I Die #518: Broken Blossoms (1919)

(This is the 518th film I've seen of the 1,149 "Films to See Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through.)

Director: D. W. Griffiths

It's not hard to see why this film has a place in film history, but it's not exactly a revelation.

The tale is a simple one, with an admirable and progressive message. A young man, Cheng Huan, decides to move from his home country China to London in order to bring the solace of Buddhism to the West. After a few years, though, instead of saving souls, he finds himself scraping by in the impoverished Limehouse district. Not far away, a young girl, Lucy (Lilian Gish), is perpetually battered, both physically and mentally, by her horribly abusive father, the rage-filled, xenophobic "Battlin' Burrows." After her most recent beating, Lily stumbles into Cheng's shop. The compassionate Cheng nurses her back into health, falling in love with her. Confrontations are, of course, set up between Cheng and Burrows.

It's an honorable story, especially for the year 1919, when compassion for immigrants, especially from the Far East, was not exactly en vogue. On top of that are the themes of feminism and domestic abuse, which are other areas that mainstream cinema rarely chooses to go, even today. In that respect, Broken Blossoms is a highly respectable film.

One of the many close-ups. This one is of Burrows. The
portrayal of this rage monster was typical of the silent-film
era: completely overdone to the point of hilarity in the eyes
of a modern viewer. 
Of course, it takes a certain type of fan to "love" a silent film like this one. I can't say I'm one of those hardcore types. Though only 89 minutes, the film does drag by modern standards. There are a lot of lingering shots of Lucy cowering, Burrows scowling and snarling, and Cheng pining. I understand that such close-ups and extended shots were quite revolutionary for the time, but in 2014 they've just been far outstripped by the succeeding 95 years of film. And the narrative cards use some laughably inane poetry to tell the story.

And then there's the racism. Amazingly, this film actually has a message about compassion and breaking down barriers. And yet, it was still clearly a slave to the prevailing attitudes and language of its time. The alternate title of this film was The Yellow Man and the Girl, and Cheng is most often referred to as "Chink" by most of the Londoners, and even "Chinky" by his lady-love Lucy. It's pretty hard not to cringe every time it comes up.

Yes, it's a "great" film. But don't go out of your way for this unless you're very much an aficionado of silent film or the history of social commentary in film.