Sunday, February 10, 2008

Broken Blossoms or the power of silent films or why didn't they give the protagonist a name or the piano player must have been really tired by the end

I must confess that I watched Broken Blossoms not knowing what genre of movie it was nor who was D.W. Griffiths (but thanks to my classmates, now I know he directed The Birth of a Nation). As a silent film I kind of expected Mary Pickford to jump in at any second but in all honesty, I don’t know that much about silent films nor D.W. Griffiths. With this in mind, I disagree with some of my classmates who found the movie to be slightly positive. Much of the argument that proposes Broken Blossoms as positive is that the protagonist is Chinese (does he even have a name? Cheung Huan?) I would hardly call him a hero considering how the actor, Mr. Richard Barthelmess, physically portrayed him, that is to say, the never-really-named-outright protagonists (let’s call him NRNO because I refuse to call him the Yellow Man) is portrayed with stooped over with a slightly hunched back with his hands constantly together in front of him. Furthermore, the strict film codes of the time prevented NRNO from being romantically linked to a white girl, as exemplified by Anna May Wong’s career. The closest he is shown to the girl (how old is she? What is the age difference between them?) is when he appears that he is going to kiss her. The music playing demonstrates that a kiss would be devastating so instead NRNO kisses her sleeve. This gesture reminded me of a scene in Ethan Frome when Ethan kisses Maddie’s ribbon instead of kissing her and we all know how that book ends.

I also want to point out a minor detail in the opium den scene. The black man is obviously someone in black face and of course NRNO is someone in yellow face. What are the implications of these characters? The extras in the movie are Asian. Furthermore, as a silent movie with no spoken dialogue, the music plays a crucial role in interpreting the movie much like music for a ballet. Obviously the piano resorts to clichéd Chinese sounding music but more importantly the music can push an audience to react a certain way. I think some of my classmates were swayed to find NRNO as a hero since he rescues Lucy because the theme for Lucy pushes you to be incredibly sympathetic to her and therefore, whoever “rescues” her is to be admired but that begs the question of why is she portrayed in this manner? It’s not like there were no strong women characters of the time, one recall’s Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Also interesting is that NRNO commits suicide at the end of the film. With the opening title, it very, very briefly reminded of the mood of Madama Butterfly and though the film’s plot does not mirror Puccini’s opera, the last scene was, nevertheless, reminiscent.

On a final note, I am trying to make a connection to Haenni’s essay “Filming ‘Chinatown’: Fake Visions, Bodily Transformations” to the film. Though the film does not completely take place in Chinatown, what fascinates me is the scene where Lucy puts on the robes and touches the goods the NRNO offers her. Is this a sexual statement? Is this some sort of transformation? But really, why didn't they give him a proper name?

-Christopher Huynh

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