Review Broken Blossoms (1919)


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Hey. I thought I'd try writing my very first review on this site. I saw Broken Blossoms (1919) yesterday, so while it's still fresh in my mind, here it goes. :emoji_relaxed:

PS. To help me out, I created a template of categories so I can address the film from various aspects. Since English isn't my first language, please ask if anything that I've written is unclear.

Basic facts
Name: Broken Blossoms
Year: 1919
Director: David Wark Griffith
Actors: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess & Donald Crisp

Synopsis (Wikipedia tells it so succintly, so I'll just copy-paste it):
Cheng Huan leaves his native China because he "dreams to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands." His idealism fades as he is faced with the brutal reality of London's gritty inner-city. However, his mission is finally realized in his devotion to the "broken blossom" Lucy Burrows, the beautiful but unwanted and abused daughter of boxer Battling Burrows.

After being beaten and discarded one evening by her raging father, Lucy finds sanctuary in Cheng's home, the beautiful and exotic room above his shop. As Cheng nurses Lucy back to health, the two form a bond as two unwanted outcasts of society. All goes astray for them when Lucy's father gets wind of his daughter's whereabouts and in a drunken rage drags her back to their home to punish her. Fearing for her life, Lucy locks herself inside a closet to escape her contemptuous father.

By the time Cheng arrives to rescue Lucy, whom he so innocently adores, it is too late. Lucy's lifeless body lies on her modest bed as Battling has a drink in the other room. As Cheng gazes at Lucy's youthful face which, in spite of the circumstances, beams with innocence and even the slightest hint of a smile, Battling enters the room to make his escape. The two stand for a long while, exchanging spiteful glances, until Battling lunges for Cheng with a hatchet, and Cheng retaliates by shooting Burrows repeatedly with his handgun. After returning to his home with Lucy's body, Cheng builds a shrine to Buddha and takes his own life with a knife to the chest.

Why Broken Blossoms?
I decided to watch Broken Blossoms solely because of its acclaim among film historians. For example, it is included in the book ”1001 movies you have to see before you die”, authored by Steven Schneider. I had sort of an idea of what I thought the movie would be about (interracial love), but it didn't turn out quite that way.

For example, I had expected the emphasis to be on the romantic (and controversial) relationship between a Caucasian woman and a Southeast Asian man. I would describe this as primarily a child abuse story than anything else.

Dramatic structure
I think it adheres to Freytag's Pyramid relatively closely. It has all the basic narrative elements (exposition, rising action, climax, etc.) and doesn't contain any significant nonlinearity or plot twists.

Considering that it was made when cinema was still in its infancy, I think the camera work and editing was good (I may expand this with more technical terms later).

I watched the original footage, which contained zero music or sound effects. Music in film can usually help invoke certain emotions for the audience, like for instance, fast-paced piano sounds in distressing scenes. Here, each viewer is not ”manipulated” at all in that sense.

Casting & acting
There were only three main actors here. Lillian Gish, who played Lucy, did a solid performance. By far the best one. Richard Barthelmess, who played Cheng, felt a bit stiff and emotionless to me. The diametrical opposite goes for Donald Crisp, who played Battling Burrows. Seriously, his facial expressions and manners felt really forced and overacted. He should have toned it down a little.

They all came across as one-dimensional characters; Lucy was the poor and helpless young girl. Battling Burrows was the menacing and brutish father. Cheng was solemn to point of lacking any personality whatsoever. Also, the interactions between Cheng and Lucy were so sparse that it leaves me wondering why he would commit suicide after her death. I just didn't find it convincing enough that he would be enarmoured with her to that degree. Maybe this was just the last straw and there were multiple factors in play? For example, homesickness and economic ruin?

The film is devoid of any deliberately funny scenes. However, some might find it slightly amusing to see Lucy fake a smile by pressing her mouth upwards with her fingers. Others might think it's funny that Cheng is played by a Caucasian actor. But that's about it.

This was a hell of a depressing movie. :emoji_expressionless: From beginning to end, there's only a couple of scenes where something unpleasant wasn't going on. Don't watch this if you've had a bad day already. Or a good day, for that matter, lol.

I might repeat previous points here. First of all, it's hard to see Barthelmess as an Asian. I get why the leading man in a mainstream Hollywood movie in the 1910s would be white, but it still detracts from the anti-racism message Griffith was trying to incorporate into the plot. You really have to suspend disbelief as a viewer, and I just couldn't do that.

Another thing is the fact that we can only infer Lucy's age on the basis of her father appearently being her legal guardian. Was she supposed to be a child? Teenager? Young adult? Cheng's exact age isn't disclosed either, but he is clearly an adult. So, from that point of view, his crush on her is kind of unsettling.

Overall opinion (1/5)
It's hard to not feel upset observing the trials and tribulations of young Lucy. There are, and have always been, people in the same position as her, so this subject is extremely important to address to bring awareness. With that said, the 1910s were 'pioneer days' when it comes to feature length movie-making, and most of of them do not hold up well for non-film historical study purposes. With all likeliness, I will not be rewatching Broken Blossoms in the future.


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Doctor Omega


A frail waif, abused by her brutal boxer father in London's seedy Limehouse District, is befriended by a sensitive Chinese immigrant with tragic consequences.