The story begins with Ling Tan (Walter Huston), the patriarch of his family consisting of his devoted and snarky wife (Aline MacMahon), his three sons Lao Ta, Lao Er, and Lao San (Robert Bice, Turhan Bey, and Hurd Hatfield, respectively) and the wives of two of his sons, Jade (Katharine Hepburn) and Orchid Frances Rafferty). Lao Ta and Orchid have two children together, a baby girl and a toddler boy. Lao Er and Jade have no children because they don't know they're in love yet (and I haven't even gotten to the real plot yet). Ling Tan and his wife (credited as "Ling Tan's wife") try very hard to keep the "old ways" going in the house, while Jade, who is a sort of pseudo-femme fatale, tries to tell them about the new ways of the world. The movie takes place during the Second Sino-Japanese War (which, honestly, I know very little about). "Evil dwarfs" from Japan invade the village near Ling Tan's farm after invading other parts of China and bombing the land, and soon take over, raping all the women and killing all the sons and eating all the food and being evildoers. The whole family joins a resistance group and begins killing Japanese soldiers and burying them under their floors. Even Jade joins in, poisoning some food and knocking out an entire regiment of Japanese soldiers. Eventually the Japanese are too evil to hang around, so all of Ling Tan's family (or what is left of them) up and leave for the mountains. The End.
There really is no plot to this movie. I mean, there is... But the first 30-45 minutes is just Jade and Lao Er getting to know each other and planting rice and reading books together. The next hour and a half consists of alternate shots of the Japanese being evil and Ling Tan's family taking revenge. That's all there is to it.
The similarities between this movie and The Good Earth are uncanny. Both have subservient yet strong women who are not particularly beautiful but make good wives and bear sons. Both have supportive husbands who are also not particularly beautiful and love the fact that they have sons. Both movies have a stock character who is lazy and fat and a kissass. Both movies (and novels too, I guess) glorify the hardworking Chinese peasant while dismissing the upper class and royalty. Both stage large scenes of full-scale riots complete with fire and shouting and running and the works. I was a little freaked out by all the similarities, to be honest.
Now this is scary. I've seen some pretty horrific yellowface but it's mostly been on males. This takes the cake for Female Yellowface. Look at those eyes. That's just... gross.
I have nothing against the character of Jade. Jade is strong-willed and independent - it's great! She's no Lotus Blossom or China Doll - nor is she a Dragon Lady. Of course, she has qualities of a Dragon Lady (poisoning soldiers, being smart) but she lacks the sex appeal that the stereotypical young Dragon Lady has. However, I dislike the way Katharine Hepburn portrayed her. There are two interpretations of her portrayal. One is that Hepburn played herself in yellowface. Vocally, this is very true. It sounds just like Katharine Hepburn being Katharine Hepburn. The other is that she took Luise Rainer's interpretation of O-Lan and made her more of an outspoken feminist but kept the same physical qualities. Both O-Lan and Jade employ coy tilts of the head to express their love for their homely husbands and seem to be meek and hesitant with their movements.
The purpose of this film was to glorify and build sympathy to the Chinese and to make Americans hate the Japanese. It's quite easy to sympathize with the Chinese characters of the film - they are hardworking, loving, and peaceful, sacrificing themselves for their children and fighting back against the "Evil Dwarfs" that are the Japanese. They are also all portrayed by white people - not actual Asians. And the cameo of Benson Fong doesn't count - he plays a militant hater of the Japanese who takes his anger out on Ling Tan's merchant brother-in-law. However, the Chinese children in this movie are actually played by Asian children. And they are pretty darn cute - just their wide eyes and chubby cheeks elicit prolonged "Aaaawwww"s from the audience, I guarantee you. This makes it even easier for the American audience to sympathize and end up caring about the Chinese. Remember, this film was released during 1944, towards the end of WWII. China was, at the time, our ally, and Japan was America's enemy. The film then shows the Japanese as cunning, sly, evil men with large teeth and an insatiable appetite for women and wine - they're all Japanese Fu Manchus! A group of them attack, rape, and kill Orchid after she is caught by them trying to hide her children. Another group of them kill Ling Tan's mother in his courtyard. They steal all of Ling Tan's hard-earned crops and starve out the rest of the village. And on top of that, all of the Japanese soldiers were played by Asians. In this way, the Chinese take on the more sympathetic role, not just because of the fact that they have "good" qualities but because they were played by white people - and therefore, a bit more trustworthy. However, getting the Asians to play the bad guys was making the fear of the Japanese even more real and tangible - one didn't have to imagine that these were Asians/Japanese, because they were. It was a horribly clever idea to do this, and it probably resulted in American audiences hating the Japanese even more. Granted, the Japanese did do some pretty awful things while occupying China, but... come on! This is a little much!
Then there's the plethora of accents going on. Not one of them can be classified as "Oriental." Lao Er has a British accent, one character has a Russian accent (what?!), Ling Tan speaks with a standard American accent, and the Japanese just sound... like they're from Britain. It's weird. Very weird.
There's also the issue of sexism in this movie. Most of the characters freely joke and toss around the ideas about beating women up and saying that their place is in the kitchen and nowhere else. The first scene with Katharine Hepburn in it shows her at a lecture in the village presented by some university students that are showing how evil the Japanese are. Lao Er shows up looking for Jade and sees her stand up and say to the students that she will help fight them. She says, "Yes! I will come!" And Lao Er shouts, "You come home! I'm hungry!" And everybody laughs. I'm not sure what the intent of this scene is supposed to be. Are we supposed to hate the Chinese for being sexist and keeping women subservient and in the home sphere? Or are we supposed to laugh as well, because a wife's duty to her husband includes making him dinner? Does the fact that their characters are Chinese change the sexism embedded in that exchange? I have no idea.
Overall, this movie was exactly the same as The Good Earth - just more anti-Japanese, more specific about the time period it was set in, and more of a propaganda film. There was still gratuitous yellowface and fetishizing the humble Chinese.