Monday, February 11, 2008

Broken Blossoms

I have not seen D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," but I have read of the public response to the film and apparently the racism was much worse than in "Broken Blossoms". This film is a very clear attempt to be anti-racist. It makes a clear differentiation between good and evil and paints the Chinese protagonist as the hero. But whether it was an attempt to apologize to viewers for his previous movie or actually challenge the racism of the time remains unclear.

The film obviously falls victim to the racism of that time period. Referring to the Chinese protagonist as "Yellow Man" and "Chink" was offensive, but I suppose it could be attributed to the prevailing racism of the early 1900's. With this in mind, I could probably let those offenses slide (and assume that an updated version would omit those words), but even so, I think the film does not make enough of an effort to challenge racism itself. The film's portrayal of Asians is still deeply racist on many levels. Firstly, casting Cheng Huan with a Caucasian was difficult to watch. His slant-eyed, hunchbacked portrayal of Chinese people was pretty offensive. Secondly, Cheng Huan is portrayed as weak and almost effeminate compared to the burly and masculine Burrows. He gives up almost immediately on his quest to change the "heathens" and goes straight to the opium den. His character is one that believes in peace and love, but lacks charisma and drive.

The film also remains quite reserved when it came to the "love story" between the girl and the main character. The only bit of "spark" I recall is that he places a blanket over her and strokes her hair lightly. It was indeed a "one-sided" love story as someone mentioned.

I did feel that the little girl was played pretty well. I thought the facial expressions were great, much more emotional than our squinty protagonist. I thought her "attempts to smile" were well done, especially as she does it one last time before she dies. The story seemed actually to be more about her than anyone else.

It occurs to me now, however, that perhaps D.W. Griffith was trying to avoid major aversions to the film by keeping the lovers fairly distant. It's possible that too much interracial embrace might not have fared well with the viewers of the day. This could even explain his use of offensive labels. Even still, I think the main Chinese protagonist could have been portrayed with a little more passion and charisma, someone that you really root for. The way it is now, I found it difficult to view him as a "hero". He didn't really save the say: the girl dies and he exacts revenge, then kills himself. I don't think this kind of portrayal really garners respect for Asians. If D.W. Griffith's goal was really to transcend racism, I think he could have done more. But it's difficult to tell what movies were like when this one was released. Perhaps it's enough that a Chinese man was portrayed favorably in light of a white man.

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