Where to begin? There is a deeply disturbing tension in this film between its attempts to humanize Asians while at the same time invoking ugly stereotypes to portray them. That the film presumes to be noble in its efforts to humanize people--who are already fully human--in and of itself betokens racism. This tension is evident in the Janus-faced title: Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl. The first half refers to the shared human suffering that draws the main characters together while the title’s second half reifies rigid categories of difference and manipulates fears of miscegenation. This two-faced approach is evident throughout. Even though the “Yellow Man” character is presented as being an inherently moral, sensitive individual who is corrupted by the London slums, his posture undercuts this positive image. The character is always hunched over, scuttling rather than walking. This body language seems to echo racist notions that immigrants, such as the Chinese, were akin to vermin. And, of course, the very fact that the lead Chinese characters are played by Caucasians standouts as another example of this double standard. Material that I’ve read about the film indicates that criticism about the racism in Birth of a Nation lead D.W. Griffith to take a more tolerant stance in his later films and that, supposedly, this film was rather enlightened for its day. Through 21st-century eyes, however, its racism is overt.
Another aspect of the film that interested me was its use of “Orientalized” spaces and how they defined characters’ behaviors. The attic, for example, where the film’s hero takes Lucy to recover, is transformed as he adds various objects that mark it as an Oriental space. This transformation extends to the girl when she dons the silk robe and becomes White Blossom. In the early 1900s it would be an exotic, forbidden space where boundaries threatened to collapse: where “white” could become “yellow” and codes of proper conduct between the sexes, particularly those of different races, could be rewritten. Of course, the first thing masculine Battling Burrows does is to deconstruct, i.e., destroy, the space and strip the girl of her transgressive identity. He may be the villain but he’s the obvious manly man in the piece, according to prevailing standards of the day, and he essentially restores the boundaries that had been wavering if not erased.