Broken Blossoms (1919)

The beginnings of yellowface in the cinema are far less controversial than D.W. Griffith’s earlier Birth of a Nation, but Broken Blossoms lacks complexity and relies on main characters’ outsider status alone as the reason for them to be together. 

Broken BlossomsUSA
3.5*

Director:
D.W. Griffith

Screenwriters:
Thomas Burke

D.W. Griffith
Director of Photography:
G.W. Bitzer

Alternate title: The Yellow Man and the Girl

Running time: 90 minutes

D.W. Griffith’s depressing 1919 romantic drama Broken Blossoms may have the dubious title of being a pioneer in the use of yellowface (having white actors play Asians, most notably by grotesquely deforming their facial features), but it also arguably started the trend of creating a couple from two people who have very little in common and no obvious chemistry.

In the early 20th century, the placid Cheng Huan is moved by the “gentle message of Buddha” towards the West. An encounter with a rowdy crew of American sailors who use to their fists to solve problems horrifies the timid Cheng and reinforces his belief that the West needs the East’s positive and peaceful approach. He sets sail for London, where we find he has become an outcast who barely speaks to anybody but runs a tiny shop in the capital’s squalid Limehouse district, where, according to the film’s title cards, “the Orient squats at the portals of the West”.

Griffith, as he had done since at least The Drive for a Life in 1909, continues to deploy parallel editing on many occasions, although it this case one would be hard-pressed to say he is perfecting the approach. He focuses on the stories of the two main characters, Cheng and Lucy, whose lives are comparable to each other in their sorrow, and Griffith expects we would expect the two strands to be firmer tied together than apart.

Of course, that is a mistake too many directors still make today. The simplistic notion that people would not only gravitate towards each other but become intimately connected simply because they are outsiders is extremely silly. Cheng barely speaks to anyone. Lucy is equally timid, although she is also suffering tremendous domestic violence at the hands of the man who raised her, a perpetually drunk miscreant boxer, Battling Burrows, who takes out his general frustration with life on his adopted daughter. So, naturally, Cheng and Lucy find each other and immediately merge their souls.

Lilian Gish plays Lucy, and unlike the expressionless, dour face (naturally, framed under a conical hat) that the white Richard Barthelmess wears to portray Cheng, hers vibrates with a melancholy that is ever-present. A scene late in the film in which she locks herself in a closet out of fear for her own life and then writhes along the wall in anguish has justifiably been hailed for its visceral impact on the viewer.

A running visual theme that Gish utilises exceptionally well is the small gesture of using her fingers to push the corners of her mouth upwards, thus forcing a smile onto her “tear-aged” face. These are moments that could easily have come across as contrived but are instead conveyed with a real sense of desperation thanks to the actress’s skills as a performer.

This is supposed to be a romantic film, as the title cards inform us almost immediately after Cheng and Lucy set eyes on each other: Cheng’s loving care of the physically and mentally abused Lucy is “the first gentleness she has ever known”, and she “seems transformed – into the dark chambers of her incredulous, frightened little heart comes warmth and light.” Cheng is so taken with this creature of purity that he scoops up the moonlight falling through the window and places it worshipfully on her hair. And yet, the two of them almost never speak; as the film, despite its obvious intention to produce a romance, chooses to focus on scenes of action (sometimes irrelevant to the main couple) with Burrows the boxer.

Cheng, who hovers lasciviously over Lucy while she sleeps, makes for a rather pathetic hero, and we have little reason to empathise with him, except for him being such a tender fellow who is taken advantage of by a brutish boxer, and more generally, by Western civilisation. On this point, Griffith, who had made the racially insensitive Birth of a Nation four years earlier, is surprisingly broad-minded. In one scene, the obviously mild-mannered Cheng meets a missionary, about to set off for China to “convert the heathen”, who hands him a pamphlet on Hell, presumably because he assumes the Chinaman would require salvation from the Christian Trinity.

Fortunately, despite its one-dimensional characters and the utter simplicity of its central romance, Broken Blossoms does have at least two moments that stand out from the rest. One is a shot at the beginning of the extended climax, when Burrows discovers Lucy in Cheng’s apartment. The camera shoots his face looking straight at us, and we can just about see his nostrils flaring as the rage builds to a terrifying crescendo. Although there was never any risk that the viewer would be empathising with the villain, this momentary re-positioning of the viewer is clever and comparable to (though better executed than) the final shot of The Great Train Robbery.

The other moment worth considering is the complex morality at the end of the film. Here, the story seems to come full circle, as Cheng’s ineffective approach to the pugilist sailors at the beginning of the film comes back to haunt him, and either he has been consumed by the barbarity of the Anglo-Saxons he had believed he would be able to save, or he has decided to solve his problems in a different, albeit equally futile, way.

Although Broken Blossoms will be remembered for its mainstream normalisation of the practice of yellowface (even though the film opened pre–Hays Code, which prohibited the depiction of miscegenation), in terms of morality the film is a vast improvement over Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Creed (2015)

Ryan Coogler lets his camera float like a butterfly and his performers sting like bees in stunning final Rocky instalment.

creedUSA
4.5*

Director:
Ryan Coogler

Screenwriters:
Ryan Coogler

Aaron Covington
Director of Photography:
Maryse Alberti

Running time: 135 minutes

Technically “Rocky VII,” Creed is the first film in the 40-year-old Rocky franchise not to be penned by Sylvester Stallone, but while it is light on the rivalry between the boxers and is in many subtle ways unlike its predecessors, this is a staggering work of art.

The main reason lies with director Ryan Coogler, the 29-year-old wunderkind whose pulverising début feature, Fruitvale Station, was a runaway success at the 2013 Sundance and Cannes film festivals, where it won top awards at both: the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award at the former, the special jury prize for début films entitled “Prix de l’avenir” in the prestigious Un certain regard section at the latter. To Creed, Coogler brings visual poetry during the action scenes, and from his two leads – Michael B. Jordan and Stallone himself – he draws forceful performances wholly untainted by the sentiment the story requires almost by definition.

Opening in what appears to be a juvenile detention centre in Los Angeles in 1998, the film introduces us to the young Adonis Johnson, who gets into trouble on a regular basis. He is the son of Apollo Creed, who so memorably defeated Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) at the end of the first film and went on to become friends with him until his death in the ring in Rocky IV.

Although Adonis never knew his father, who died a few months before the birth of his illegitimate son, Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), turns up to adopt him. He spends the next 17 years in her care, rising in the world of LA finance while making nocturnal trips across the border to fight in Tijuana. Then, one day, he decides to give it all up and focus full-time on his boxing. Understandably, Mary Anne is none too pleased. Adonis then takes things to the next level by travelling to Philadelphia to solicit the help of Rocky Balboa, and in the very first scene between these two men, one a seasoned prize fighter nearly 70 years old, the other a brash and well-pedigreed but entirely inexperienced amateur, the acting takes our breath away.

Coogler’s talent for bringing out the best in his actors should not come as a surprise to anyone who saw his first film, and despite the much larger budget he had at his disposal for Creed, his focus on acting delivers Stallone’s best performance in many a decade along with yet another very well-crafted portrayal by Jordan. In the end, this film is all about the play by the actors and between the characters, as the story itself, stretched over 135 minutes, has some weak spots (a love story that seems a little too “meant-to-be”) and basically builds up to the big final fight with little meat up to that point, late in the film, when the Rocky theme song stirs us to our bones.

The structure takes its form from the formula, in that our main character is a young boxer who has to beat the odds to bring down the best of the best. The latter in this case is world light heavyweight champion Ricky Conlan, who is about to retire but is looking for one last brawl. Luckily, Stallone knows the ropes, and he is firmly in Adonis’s corner, because it gives him a very definite purpose at this point towards the end of his life.

Complementing the fine examples of acting is a masterful visual style that does not have the usual highlights nor moments of stasis but instead raises the bar throughout. Besides the two attention-grabbing Steadicam shots – the first is the opening shot, the second is the “entering the ring” scene that visually recalls Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, perhaps the greatest boxing film of all time – Coogler also stages his fights with breathtaking flair by shooting them up close (the camera appears to be inside the ring, although there clearly has to be some visual trickery), yet the movements are always graceful, even feather-like, and utterly mesmerising.

While not forgoing it completely, Coogler heavily alters the classic training montage – a staple of the Rocky films – by making it less sentimental. He does this by using the rap song “Bridging the Gap” by Nas, which very appropriately concerns the relationship between a father and son, on the soundtrack instead of Bill Conti’s celebrated theme song, and he also highlights the exercise and the struggle while mostly abandoning the sickly-sweet-trajectory-towards-a-crescendo structure this sequence used to have in previous instalments. The changes make this a very different film from its predecessors, but it remains grounded in tradition thanks to the presence and dedication of Stallone as the irreplaceable Rocky.

The only place where the film trips up is during a wholly unnecessary alternating montage between Creed and Conlan, which seems superfluous and too conventional for this entry that in so many other respects departs from tradition.

Creed could easily have been a contrived piece of storytelling about one man’s desire to rid himself of his father’s ghost while embracing his own talents – exactly the point where his character overlaps with that of his father, whom he never knew. One need look no further than the Stallone–De Niro boxing film Grudge Match for evidence that the ride can be wobbly even when the talent is good.

Instead, it turns out to be a bravura work of art that once again affirms the undeniable talent of this director who has not even turned 30 yet and has already produced two towering works of stimulation for the senses and the intellect. Stallone delivers one of the finest performances of his career, and Michael B. Jordan should now feature on everyone’s list of actors to sign up.