Posted on 2/18/13 01:20 AM
Lillian Gish gives an inspiring and masterful performance in "Broken Blossoms," Griffith's film about an interracial romance during a time when phobia against Asians was at plague-like levels. Though many films of today depend on camera techniques and modern editing to create tension in scenes, Gish's acting just about singularly creates the necessary tensions and tones that are carried scene after scene. Her character, along with Barthelmass's pitiful and, ironically, ignorantly named "Yellow Man" character (well, small steps...) serve as glimmers of innocence in the dark and glum Limehouse area the film is set in (it's even said that the dark and gritty environment of Battling's shack, though primitive and stale, is a precursor to noir.)
The themes are at a minimum but still conspicuous enough to be amusing. Cheng the "Yellow Man" precociously, and naively, aspired to spread Buddha's message of peace to the West while a western missionary intended to spread the message of Christ to the East with packets on the subject of hell. Subtle social commentary on the peaceful methods of the East, abstractly seen as innocence embodied by Cheng, being stifled by the intimidation methods of the West (the recurring motif of bells is also a welcomed feature.) Battling, the antagonist, and his brute, xenophobic conduct serves as a great opposite to Cheng's timid, oppressed nature.
The iris shots, tinting, and general nebulous look of many silent films, meshed with a tranquil score, lend a visually and rhythmically dreamy quality that is very present in "Broken Blossoms;" this was really a joy to watch and just a delightful piece of oneiric escapism. But, what really makes this film is, again, Lillian Gish. Her cradling a baby doll in an allusion to the Madonna or hysterically sobbing before being beaten by her draconian, amoral father makes this film sensational. The way she plays with her eyes, her facial features, and her body language is all fantastic, especially during a time when flat, stationary camera angles and prolonged, uncut shots demanded innovative and immaculate performances from actors and actresses.