Broken Blossoms: Film Analysis, Ellen Schoenfeld

December 10, 2019 at 9:24 pm Leave a comment

Broken Blossoms is a 1919 film by D.W. Griffith about a Chinese immigrant named Cheng Huan in London and his love story with a young girl named Lucy who is trying to escape her father’s abuse. The film has garnered a lot of controversy since its release 100 years ago.

One of the most extensive writings on Broken Blossoms was done by Gina Marchetti in her book, Romance and the Yellow Peril. Marchetti writes specifically about Broken Blossoms in her chapter, “The Rape Fantasy: The Cheat and Broken Blossoms”. Within it, she analyzes the idea of the “yellow peril” and the way it affects Cheng Huan’s relationship with Lucy. She describes Broken Blossoms as such:

“… the film can be looked at as a catalog of what society considers as sexual crimes excesses, or perversions, including rape, increst, sadism, masochism, pedophilia, necrohpilia, fetishism, voyeurism, and prostitution as well as miscegenation. In fact, given this list of sexual deviations, interracial sexuality, which remains on the level of controlled lust and innocent affection, may be the most innocuous part of the fantasy.” (Marchetti 33-34)

She comments on the sexual undertones, and overtones, within the film. One of the specific ideas that she focuses on is the qualities that Cheng Huan exemplifies. He personifies the “feminine” qualities that Western culture saw as ‘Asian’. She argues that he is feminized in a way that links him with “a passive, carnal, occult, and duplicitous Asia” (Marchetti 35) by way of his behavior and even the way he dresses. This feminization keeps his love for Lucy a “pure and holy thing”, as it is described in the film.

Despite this ‘pure and holy’ love Cheng Huan’s advance on Lucy (which he resists, kissing her sleeve instead of her lips) is still a possession of the white woman, which is a common theme in the idea of Yellow Peril. The thing that redeems him most is Lucy’s father’s more extreme and harmful sexual aggression. This is what allows Cheng Huan to continue to be the ‘hero’, at least to an extent.

Broken Blossoms is an important film to look at when considering the racial relationships between Asia and the West. Marchetti analyzes it as such:

“… Broken Blossoms maintains a fundamental separation between Asia and the West played out dramatically and violently through a doomed romance in which the effeminate Asian man finds a “perverse” potency in his desire for an unobtainable Caucasian woman… Cheng Huan’s emigration from an idyllic China of temple bells, Buddhist statues, and innocent maidens dooms him to the “hell” of Limehouse.” (Marchetti 38)

Cheng Huan is simultaneously a victim and a perpetrator, and ultimately he and his relationship with Lucy reflect the negative stereotypes that D.W. Griffith and the rest of the West believed about the Asian community. Particularly when one considers that this film was meant to be art, and was absorbed as such, it adds perspective to the kinds of media that were being consumed at the time and the messages that they sent.

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