Dragon Seed (1944)
Director: Harold S. Bucquet and Jack Conway.
Starring: Katharine Hepburn (Jade Tan), Walter Huston (Ling Tan), Aline MacMahon (Ling Tan's Wife), Akim Tamiroff (Wu Lien), Turhan Bey (Lao Er Tan - Middle Son), Hurd Hatfield (Lao San Tan - Youngest Son), J. Carrol Naish (Japanese Kitchen Overseer), Agnes Moorehead (Third Cousin's Wife), Henry Travers (Third Cousin), Robert Bice (Lao Ta Tan - Eldest Son), Robert Lewis (Captain Sato), Frances Rafferty (Orchid Tan - Lao Ta's Wife), Jacqueline deWit (Wu Lien's Wife), Clarence Lung (Fourth Cousin), Paul E. Burns (Neighbor Shen).
Chinese villagers try to adopt a peaceful attitude toward their Japanese conquerors, but not Jade Tan
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Valley of Ling, summer 1937. Farm of Ling Tan and his family. Besides the wife there are three grown sons: Lao Ta, Lao Er and Lao San. The middle brother Lao Er has been married to Jade for four months. Orchid Tan is another of the daughters-in-laws of the family and she has a young boy and a baby girl. She is the wife of the youngest son Lao San. The eldest son Lao Ta is still a bachelor who doesn't like work. He prefers to play the flute.
Lao Er complains that Jade is somewhat distant to him. And he never finds her home waiting for him when his work is finished. One late afternoon he grabs a plant to make a switch out of it and goes in search of Jade. He is afraid that she is with his fourth cousin who likes Jade a lot. He asks his aunt and uncle in town where is his fourth cousin. They don't know, since he has not been seen since lunch. The aunt is very critical of her husband and blames him for not arranging the marriage of Jade to their son.
Lao Er sees students talking to a group of villagers about the war in the north. The Japanese are now marching in their direction. They show slides of some of the devastation brought by the Japanese. Lao Er looks around trying to find Jade. He finds his fourth cousin but another woman is with him. The students say the villagers must resist the Japanese even unto their own deaths. They ask people to stand if they agree to resist. Jade stands up and says she is ready. Lao Er sees her and tells her that he is hungry. This leads to the men of the village taunting and teasing her for violating the proper role of the female. Jade goes over to her husband.
As they walk home, Lao Er wonders aloud why Jade shames him all the time. Jade insists that these are modern times and she will come and go as she pleases. He insists she should be at home waiting for her husband. Lao Er asks her why did she originally chose his fourth cousin over him? She coolly responds that there's not much difference between the two men, as if she were indifferent to which man she chose. Lao Er asks her if he speaks freely to her tonight, will she speak freely to him? Jade says yes. This brings the two closer, so Jade plays the submissive wife in front of his family. Her mother-in-law is so shocked that she says her son must have beaten her.
The father and his sons speak with the uncle and his sons. Father says that he is is happy to provide his cousin with rice because the man is a scholar. He speaks of the future and peace between his three sons over the land they own. At the mention of the word peace, Jade pipes up: "If you had been with me today, you would not speak so easily of peace, my father." The father wants to know why, but he is not supposed to speak directly to his daughter-in-law. Lao Er speaks up and tells his father about the student meeting today. Father thinks that the reports of the Japanese are mostly like blown out of proportion. Jade leaves. Neither father or cousin take the threat of the Japanese very seriously.
Lao Er wants to go to his wife immediately but Lao San tells him to make her wait for him. Later his mother tells him that it is good sometimes for a man to beat his wife. Mother tells father that Jade is too independent and she is not sure she even likes Jade. Father tells her not to worry. Their son will never tire of Jade.
Lao Er goes to his wife and observes that this is the first time she has waited for him. He speaks to her about what she is thinking and what she thinks of him. Lao Er tries to cheer her up by saying he will buy her whatever she wants. She wants a book. Women are not taught to read, but Jade explains that she learned a little at a time from her brother who could read. Her husband agrees to buy her her own book so she can read.
Lao Er goes to town to the store owned by his brother-in-law Wu Lien. He asks Wu Lien to suggest to him a good book for his wife to read. Wu Lien suggests "All Men are Brothers." The conversation is interrupted by the news that the students are upset with Wu Lien. He speaks with a student delegation who say they have asked him again and again not to deal with Japanese goods. He should not be buying and selling these goods. He refuses, so the students start smashing up his store and taking his Japanese goods. The goods are piled up in the street and set afire. The students tell the people to turn away from Wu Lien like they turn away from the Japanese. Other merchants turn away from Wu Lien. This scares Wu Lien and he says he must think this over carefully and decide what he should do.
Lao Er returns home and tells his family about the burning of the goods. About the book purchased, mother complains that it is wrong to give such a dangerous thing to a woman. Jade is ecstatic about the book. Lao Er goes to see Jade and finds her reading. She tells him to sit beside him and she will tell him what she read. But her husband is more interested in her than the book. She tells him that she will teach him how to read. He is still more interested in her, so she finally gives in, puts the book away and blows out the candle. She tells her husband that with her new freedom, she is now content and will give of herself more freely to him.
Jade is pregnant. Lao Er is very happy to hear this. He says this is the best moment of his life so far. As he says this, the sound of Japanese airplanes is heard overhead. A bomb is dropped and all the villagers rush to the explosion site. The explosion has left a huge bomb crater that amazes the peasants. As they talk, they see heavy smoke rising from their town. Lao San agrees to go check on their relatives in the town.
At night Lao San returns home with Wu Lien and his family. The bombed out family tells how terrible were the bombing raids. Both buildings and people were blown to pieces. They have lost everything. Lao Er suggests that maybe the student protestors were right all along. Father is shaken by the news and insists that he go see what happened with his own eyes. Hundreds of people are fleeing the city. He goes into the town and starts helping to find anyone who has been buried in the rubble.
Back at home, father decides to stay where he is and two of his sons say they will do the same. But Lao Er says he will leave and suggests that the family do the same. Mother says Jade should at least stay, but father overrules her saying a woman should go with her man. Jade is happy about this.
The entire family will stay until the enemy is upon them. One day they see hundreds of refugees coming toward them and they think the whole world must be on the move. But they soon find out that these are not regular refugees. They are townspeople who carry, push and pull construction materials to build a factory in an area outside the control of the Japanese. Father urges them to rest with them on their land, so the column does just that. Lao Er and Jade tell father that these are the people they will join up with. The group is headed to the mountains a thousand miles away. There they will set up a factory to produce guns and bullets for the army.
The next morning Lao Er and Jade leave with the group. Mother does not come with father to see them leave.
The people of the valley see Japanese bombers headed out on bombing raids almost everyday. And yet they continue to harvest the crops. They also know it won't be long before the Japanese occupy the city. Then one day the sounds of war fall silent. Father is worried. He fears the silence means the Japanese have taken the city.
The Japanese approach the village. The town elders go out to greet them. The column passes by them. Then the commander arrives. He only asks where their inn is. The elders bring him to the inn and the Japanese quickly take over and demand to be fed. They ask for wine, but there is none. So they ask for their women. One of the cousins of the family tries to run out of the inn, but is shot dead by the Japanese commander.
Father tells the commander that they have wine in their homes. They will have their women bring them the wine. Once outside the inn, father tells the other Chinese men to head quickly to their homes. Father comes home to tell the family to leave and scatter across the lands. Everyone sneaks out the back way as the Japanese approach the front. Only mother and father are left behind together with an old woman relative who is too old and heavy to leave. They try to hide within the house. The Japanese kill their dog and loot the house. They then go to search for the farmers. The soldiers find the old, heavy woman and start mistreating her. Her screams can be heard by the other members of the family in hiding.
The Japanese start systematically walking through the woods where the family is hiding. They hear the cry of the baby girl of Lao San. To save her children, the mother leaves her baby girl with her young son and runs away from them. The Japanese catch her and then gang rape her. At night mother and father come out of hiding. They find the old woman dead. Their eldest son arrives. He is happy to find his parents alive, but tells them of the terrible things he has seen done by the Japanese soldiers. Lao San returns carrying his dead wife. With him are his son and daughter. The eldest son says he will go and fight with the others against the Japanese. After burying his daughter-in-law, father tells Lao San to go with his brother and help watch over him. Lao San sees this as an opportunity to kill Japanese to pay them back for what they did to his wife.
In the town, Wu Lien sets up back in business. He hears and sees the Japanese committing war crimes by mass executions using machine guns. The commanding officer comes to his store and Wu Lien so fawns over him that the commander asks him to help the Japanese set up a government that will rule for them. Wu Lien agrees to help. He gives him the address of a wealthy man and tells Wu Lien to come and live there. Wu Lien agrees. He talks with his assistant about how he is a man of peace, but then notices that the assistant has slipped out the back way. He looks out the back way and sees a flag hanging there, indicating Wu Lien is a collaborator with the Japanese. He quickly takes it down and goes back inside his store.
The Japanese start taking virtually everything from the surviving countryside. They tell father that nothing is his anymore. He and his nation are a conquered people. Father and mother worry about how they and their grandchildren will survive, but the Japanese don't care.
Meanwhile, Jade and Lao Er continue their work with the factory unit. They cross over rivers and slog through mud, rain and snow. Up in the mountains they run out of food. The time nears for Jade to have her baby.
The farmers and their families in the valley start to die from starvation and pestilence. Father and mother lose the two grandchildren. His scholar cousin comes over with a message from their son Lao Er. They have a new grandchild.
In the spring the Japanese hand out seed to be planted. Father has to pull his own plow with mother guiding the plow.
One night Jade and Lao Er return home with their child. Grandmother is so happy to see her grandson.
Lao Er's job is to bring the message of resistance to the people of the village. The farmers help create a basement in father's house where arms and bullets can be stored and men hidden. And now mother has her three sons with her again and she is very happy. The Japanese are in the village looking for men to enslave. The sons think it a good time to fight the Japanese. They arm themselves and head out. The men surround the Japanese at work and open fire on them. They kill them all. Father, however, is very sad and disturbed. He says he saw how terrible his third son has become, cruelly loving the act of killing Japanese soldiers.
Wu Lien and his family arrive for a visit. They come with two Japanese soldiers. Jade and Lao Er must hide. Mother's daughter asks about her brothers. The family soon leaves, as quarrels break out.
The scholar cousin and his wife go to se Wu Lien. The wife agrees to be a collaborator and spy for Wu Lien in return for food and favors. And her first service is to report that Jade is back home with a fine baby boy. She goes on to rat out Ling Tan and his family. They are the ones killing the small groups of Japanese sent out from the city. This shocks Wu Lien's wife who is worried now about the fate of her family in the valley. The enthusiastic spy now tells Wu Lien about the secret room. The scholar cousin gets so disgusted with her that he leaves without his wife. Wu Lien rewards her with money and says they will speak again.
Wu Lien is told to go see Captain Sato. He shows the captain the new poster he has designed praising the Japanese. That's nice, says the captain, but what he wants is information. Wu Lien says he doesn't know anything, so the Japanese say maybe it's best to burn down all the farm houses in the valley. The shopkeeper says he will have information for them soon on the center of resistance.
Back home, Wu Lien's wife asks him if he told on her family? He says no. He also says that he is a man caught in the middle between the lion and the tiger. Wu Lien asks himself: "Can a half a man still live?"
The scholar cousin tells Jade and the others about his traitor wife. He says he beat his wife until she had to lean against a wall to prevent her falling. Jade says Wu Lien must be killed. While father talks about what to decide with his cousin, Jade heads to the city. She gets some poison from the apothecary and goes to see Wu Lien. Her sister-in-law and husband are nervous about Jade's visit. She tries to poison him but is disturbed by the Japanese. So she gets into the kitchen by flirting with the Japanese head of the kitchen. He thinks he can have sex with her so he has her stay in the kitchen. She pours the poison into the sauce.
The food is served. She tries to escape but is stopped by the commander. She then tries again and this time she is successful. The officers become sick from the poison. One of the dying Japanese officers shoots Wu Lien. He returns to his house wounded. He tells his wife that the enemy is poisoned and they blamed him. He tells her to take the children to her family. Wu Lien dies.
Wu Lien's wife arrives at the family farm. She tells the family what happened. Jade goes outside. Her husband comes out. He knows his wife poisoned the soldiers and is not angry at her. He hugs his wife and tells her she pleases him. Jade and her husband now go back to the mountains.
Autumn comes. Jade and their son return. Their son tells the farmers that they must destroy the farm crops. They resist. Jade asks her father if he does not love his country? Father is mad at the question. Jade, father and his son return to tell the other two brothers that their plan has failed. The farmers will not burn their crops. Lao Ta threatens his father if he does not cooperate. Father slaps him and Lao Ta angrily leaves the house.
Jade gives a great speech to change her father-in-law's decision not to resist the Japanese. Jade and her family are about to leave the house, when Ling Tan tells them he will burn his farm and fields and they will all go into the mountains. They set the fires and escape through the unlit north field. Up in the mountains they look back and see farmers burning their homes and fields. They are very surprised and very happy.
Now in the mountains their eldest son, seeing what they did to the village, apologizes to his father. Father and mother say they will go to free China and work to raise crops for the people. Jade has father and mother take their son with them. "So it came about that while Ling Tan left the land behind him, he did not leave hope for he carried it with him in Jade's child, that child so truly the seed of the dragon."
Good movie about a family's ability to stick together and survive, despite the war crimes of the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War. Katherine Hepburn is very good as the feisty Jade, who is loyal and courageous throughout. And Walter Huston is also very good as the patriarch of the entire family Ling Tan. The Chinese are shown as not showing much emotion upon greeting and leaving family, but their actions speak a great deal for their love of family. Amid the great loss of family members and the sight of Japanese atrocities, the Chinese Tan family keeps its honor and its faith in each other.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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