Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)
“We may believe there are no Battling Burrows , striking the helpless with brutal whip – but do we not ourselves use the whip of unkind words or deeds?”
The above image depicts a lie; for the strongest photo of the two lead actors together, I sacrificed the monochrome golds, blues and greens that permeated different scenes for this black and white picture. Likewise, the ideas presented strike deeper than simplicities and, instead, show a surprisingly complex perspective on oppressors and the oppressed as well as perceptions of race. As the only silent film I’ve ever watched was 2010’s The Artist, I was hesitant on approaching these types of movies, fearing them to be slow and atmospheric.
While these issues weren’t invalidated, I found how the movie presented itself ultimately intrigued me. The scale of the movie was small, revolving around the fates of the fragile Lucy, her brutish father and the good-natured Chinese man Cheung. Additionally, the entire storyline could be nicely summarized in about two sentences. Thus, as viewers, we didn’t need to focus on countless events and dialogue that silent films would have a harder time portraying.
Instead, the movie spent time focusing on the character’s emotions, sets and visual symbolism. The father beats his daughter off-screen multiple times with a whip. This highlights a physical, violent oppression, but the more nuanced (and more compelling) idea addressed is the emotional oppression that both Lucy and Cheung experience. The exact age of Lucy is not mentioned and her appearance is that of a young woman, but the characters call her “child” and she has a fascination with dolls. I believe this was to emphasize the emotional stunt she is in from constantly being in abused by her father. She can’t possibly mature when not able to protect herself. Cheung, on the other hand, suffers from prejudice for being Asian, even though he is the moral compass of the film.
Cheung’s characterization brings up another aspect of the film: the stereotypes presented in the film. Cheung was played by a white individual who spends most of the movie with raised eyebrows and squinted eyes. Characters call him “chink” and for the few moments they are in China, everyone is in fancy oriental clothing. However, while I could see certain people calling this aspect “racist”, the film’s context and the way Cheung is characterized makes it acceptable for the time period. America had general, limited perceptions of Chinese culture in the 1910’s, so the way he was portrayed might have seemed true to the filmmakers. Also, Cheung isn’t a comedic character, but an amiable protagonist while the strong Caucasian father-figure is the antagonist. Even the values of industrialized England are seen in a negative light. This is refreshing because it builds on the idea that races don’t have to fit into specific roles as well an improvement of race representations from the director’s earlier movie The Birth of a Nation.
In the end of the film, the father’s attempts to continue usurping power leads to tragedy for all involved. And ultimately, we share this “broken” pain with the characters as individuals and not their stereotypes.
movie image from http://cf2.imgobject.com/t/p/original/dBHI5oWF69gaRo4yhoqZsOgtnkm.jpg