In the late 1920s in Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War, as throngs of refugees flee the rainswept city, a couple of elderly missionaries welcomes guests to their home for the wedding of Dr. Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon), a fellow missionary, and Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck), his childhood sweetheart whom he has not seen in three years. Some of the missionaries have a cynical view of the Chinese people they have come to save. Shortly after Megan arrives, her fiancé Bob rushes in and postpones the wedding so he can rescue a group of orphans who are in danger from the spreading civil war. Megan insists on accompanying him on his mission.
On the way they stop at the headquarters of General Yen (Nils Asther), a powerful Chinese warlord who controls the Shanghai region. While Megan waits in the car, Bob pleads with the general for a safe passage pass so he can save the orphans. Contemptuous of Bob's missionary zeal, General Yen gives him a worthless paper that describes Bob's foolishness. Bob and Megan reach St. Andrews orphanage safely, but the pass only makes the soldiers laugh and steal their car when they try to leave with the children. The missionaries and children eventually reach the train station, but in the chaos, Bob and Megan are both knocked unconscious and are separated.
Sometime later, Megan regains consciousness in the private troop train of General Yen, attended by his concubine, Mah-Li (Toshia Mori). When they arrive at the general's summer palace, they are greeted by a man named Jones (Walter Connolly), Yen's American financial advisor, who tells him that he has succeeded in raising six million dollars, hidden in a nearby boxcar, for General Yen's war chest. Megan is shocked by the brutality of the executions conducted outside her window. Fascinated and attracted by the young beautiful missionary, the general has his men move the executions out of earshot and assures her that he will send her back to Shanghai as soon as it is safe.
One evening, Megan drifts off to sleep and has an unsettling erotic dream about the general who comes to her rescue and kisses her passionately. Soon after, she accepts the general's invitation to dinner. While they are dining, the general learns that his concubine Mah-Li has betrayed him with Captain Li (Richard Loo), one of his soldiers. Later, after General Yen arrests Mah-Li for being a spy, Megan tries to intervene, appealing to his better nature. The general challenges her to prove her Christian ideals by forfeiting her own life if Mah-Li proves unfaithful again. Megan naively accepts and ends up unwittingly helping Mah-Li betray the general by passing information to his enemies about the location of his hidden fortune.
With the information provided by Mah-Li, the general's enemies steal his fortune, leaving him financially ruined and deserted by his soldiers and servants. General Yen is unable to take Megan's life—it is too precious to him. When she leaves his room in tears, he prepares a cup of poisoned tea for himself. Megan returns, dressed in the fine Chinese garments he gave her. She waits on him in the gentle manner of a concubine. When she says she could never leave him, he only smiles, then drinks the poisoned tea.
Sometime later, Megan and Jones are on a boat headed back to Shanghai. While discussing the beauty and tragedy of the general's life, Jones comforts Megan by saying that one day she will be with him again in another life.Barbara Stanwyck as Megan Davis
Nils Asther as General Yen
Walter Connolly as Jones
Toshia Mori as Mah-Li
Gavin Gordon as Dr. Robert Strike
Lucien Littlefield as Mr. Jackson
Richard Loo as Capt. Li
Helen Jerome Eddy as Miss Reed
Emmett Corrigan as Bishop Harkness
Clara Blandick as Mrs. Jackson (uncredited)
Ella Hall as Mrs. Amelia Hansen (uncredited)
The first film to play at the Radio City Music Hall, it was scheduled for a two-week run but the theater yanked it after eight days and $80,000 in grosses, despite the certainty of a loss on its rental fee. In his memoir, Capra recalls that "it was chosen as the film to open Radio City Music Hall."
Stanwyck blamed its poor box-office showing on racist backlash. Miscegenation, so soon to become taboo in Hollywood, is made palatable and attractive as a natural outcome of passions molded by tumultuous times.
The New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall said it was "a handsomely mounted affair with conspicuously good portrayals by Nils Asther and Walter Connolly...It is a story that is scarcely plausible but which has the saving grace of being fairly entertaining."According to Time magazine, "Stanwyck is satisfactory ... but the most noteworthy female member of the cast is Toshia Mori, a sloe-eyed Japanese girl."
Upon release, the British Board of Censors required cuts before they approved the film. When Columbia Pictures sought to reissue the film in 1950, the Production Code Administration was adamant that its characterizations of Americans and Chinese and a scene in which the heroine offered herself to the general were both "very questionable", and the film was not rereleased.
The film has raised different points in recent years. Kevin Lee, writing in Senses of Cinema, notes that with changes in racial and sexual conventions, film scholars have objected not to its Orientalism and white actors portraying Asian characters. Kevin B. Lee grants these objections but argues that for "those who are willing to plough beyond these surface reactions, what's left is a film that weaves an elaborate web out of competing cultural perceptions, social and religious values, and sexual desires." What Lee finds of values is that the film "risks offence for the sake of constructing a dialogue, one fraught with so many perils in the realms of politics, religion, cultures and sex, that it would not be worth it if it weren’t necessary."