(or, The Yellow Man and the Girl)
D.W. Grifith's reputation as a brilliantly racist filmmaker receives some dubious reinforcement from this excellent 1919 melodrama about interracial love. Adapted from the short story "The Chink and the Girl" by Thomas Burke, Broken Blossoms begins in China, where The Yellow Man (or, "Chinky," played by Richard Barthelmess) prepares for a journey west, where, in a fine irony, he aims to enlighten the barbaric masses in the peaceful teachings of Buddha. However, after two years in London his optimistic glow fades behind the thick film of poverty covering every inch of the Limehouse district in which he lives. He draws his only consolation from the smoke of his "lilied pipe," and from the suppressed beauty of young Lucy (Lilian Gish), the abused daughter of a local boxing champion. Although Griffith employs many racial stereotypes (at least The Yellow Man doesn't work in a laundry) and a few currently taboo descriptive terms which will no doubt provide fuel for his detractors, his empathy and reverence for The Yellow Man and his culture is unmistakble. However, it can be reasonably argued that on an unintended level Broken Blossoms is not a tragic romance, but rather an allegory of Asian self-loathing, and, much like a subplot in Birth of a Nation, a testament to the universal, yet forbidden and unrequited, desirability of white women to other races. Nevertheless, working on a small, intimate scale, Griffith's talents excel where in his longer films they wander. The tone is poetic and moving, the images beautiful, and Gish, as always, is radiant. Barthelmess, to his credit, gives a mostly subtle performance, but never once looks Chinese; he instead resembles the lead character from Powder. Griffith doesn't help by casting real Asian extras, who only accentuate Barthelmess's incongruity. Kino has lovingly presented this film on DVD with a minimum of deterioration in a full-frame transfer, complete with originlal color tints and a brand new piano score by Joseph Turrin in Dolby 2.0. Also includes an old clip of Gish introducing the film for television (including excerpts from Gish's 1925 film ROMOLA), the complete text of Burke's story, a karaoke-like recording of the tie-in song "Broken Blossoms," and interview exceprts from Griffith ruminating on the topic of leading ladies. Keep-case.
Gregory P. Dorr
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