The Bitter Tea of General Yen centers around one of those “ahead of its time” romances, an interracial relationship between a white American missionary and a Chinese general/bandit, flung together by chance during the Chinese Civil War of 1927.
But Capra isn’t concerned with romantic foreshadowings leading up to this fateful connection, since the situation stems from a time of war and murder. The disturbing and lovely push-pull comes in a more confined space after the fact, where neither character can move but closer to the other.
Religion, faith, loyalty, and deception play large roles in both reinforcing and reversing stereotypes about Anglo imperialism and Chinese representation, yet the slow attraction between Megan (Barbara Stanwyck) and Yen (Nils Asther) feels genuinely unique, beyond such considerations. When these two gaze into each other’s eyes, the fledgling narrative melts away, Capra quieting the volatile space with the silence of perception and the tragedy of reality.
Even though this connection is born from jealousy, power, and control, both Megan and Yen come to see each other as life-changing forces. There are constant references to the brutality and unpredictability of China and its traditions, but Capra sees these traits in love itself, in the very act of committing to someone or something beyond yourself. The consequences are twofold, damaging to the psyche but completely worthwhile in the long run. The bitter irony of the title might be the greatest aspect of this revolutionary melodrama from Frank Capra, if not its most innovative.