Sunday, February 10, 2008

Response to Broken Blossoms

Despite the expected stereotypical portrayal of the Asian character, I was very impressed by Broken Blossoms. Of course I can recognize the racist portrayal of the emasculated Asian male, the typical "Oriental" themes like the Opium Den, but the relationship between "the Yellow Man" and Lucy Burrows is worth a close examination. The fact that "the first [Lucy] has ever known" comes from a "Yellow Man," the fact that the protagonist saves her from a dangerous man in the Limehouse district, and the fact that he is the most human and sympathetic character in the movie are enough to convince me that this movie has portrayed Asians in a somewhat positive manner.

But it is important that acknowledge that the "Yellow Man" is still emasculated, portrayed as a complete antithesis of the Battling Burrows character. Although "Yellow Man" is a man, neither his physical appearance nor his characteristics carry a sense of a strong dominant male. In fact, when he takes care of Lucy in the room above his store, he serves her in a manner she would serve her father. In other words, "Yellow Man" is closer to a child who serves, who child who serves another child. The moment he attempts to kiss her, somewhat comical, reveals his childishness, unable to carry out the action that typical white males on screen should be able to carry out. Perhaps the scene serves to relieve the white audience from fear of miscegenation, but at the same time it is important to remember that "Yellow Man," despite the emasculation, is still a man. He is a grown up man, and Lucy is a child. The "Yellow Man" is not Humbert Humbert from Lolita (meaning he's not a pedophile), and I think the film tries to say that the "Yellow Man" has the morality to discern right from wrong. Instead of portraying him as a monster like Dr. Fu Manchu and others that Haenni mentions in her essay, the movie chooses to portray him as a morally conscious man. After all, he left for the West to spread the word of Buddha, take the "glorious message of piece to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife."

Another scene from the movie that I want to draw attention to is the moment the "Yellow Man" briefly meets a British man who "leaves for China to convert the heathens." Here, I think D.W. Griffith comments on both worlds' (the East and the West) attempts to convert each other, believing in their superiority of their cultures, unable to reconcile or tolerate the differences. The "Yellow Man" comes to the West trying to spread his religion while the Brits go to China to spread their religion. Maybe the film is critiquing the parochial tendencies of missionary acts, and maybe it is also suggesting that the two worlds are very different and their powers should be balanced.

Haenni suggests that the use of white actor to portray Asian male reinforces the idea that the Asia on screen is unreal, purposely made unreal so that audience does not identify themselves with the people on screen, perpetuating the idea that Asia is a world imagined. Maybe her idea can be applied to Broken Blossoms since the actor obviously does not really look Asian, and Asian districts are characterized with Opium dens, where one could travel to the East on an imaginary magic carpet. But at least I like to believe that the film does its due diligence to emphasize the goodness of Asians with its portrayal the "Yellow Man." Honestly, I was very surprised that an Asian character in a 1919 film was portrayed with sympathy.

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