Blood of Fu Manchu

Sax Rohmer's sinister Chinese supervillain Fu Manchu first appeared in print in 1912. At the time, anti-Asian sentiments were running high in the English-speaking West: for instance, waves of Chinese immigration had working-class whites, particularly in the U.S., fearing for their jobs; while unrest in British colonial China, stemming from heavy-handed imperial attempts to "civilize" one of the world's oldest civilizations, gave rise to fears that the Chinese were about to bring their insurrection to England. Fu Manchu was by no means the first grotesque caricature of the "Yellow Peril" to emerge in popular fiction, but he was the most successful; by the mid-1920's, after the first three Fu Manchu novels had been published, he had become the template on which other Asian or pseudo-Asian villains were modeled.

Rohmer described Fu Manchu as "the yellow peril incarnate in one man", and in a backwards sense he was right — for the character came to personify the xenophobic attitudes of the era. The "Fu Manchu moustache", which Rohmer's Fu does not wear, was added in the popular imagination, simply because it fit with the cartoon image of the "Mandarin" in the way that the pigtail had come to symbolize the coolie. The stereotypical drooping moustache became the "Fu Manchu moustache" because Fu himself had become the stereotype.

It is now practically impossible to separate the literary Fu from the character he became in the wider public imagination. Many of Sax Rohmer's defenders argue that the original depiction of Fu wasn't as monstrously racist as his critics maintain, nor as one-dimensional he became in all the miscellaneous unofficial adaptations, sequels and rip-offs (I don't know if this is true; I read a number of the novels as a kid, and I remember I found them pretty awful even by the loose racial standards of the mid-1970's). On the other hand, academic race specialists love to bring up Fu Manchu (usually alongside Charlie Chan as the two polar examples of white racism against Asians), while displaying little evidence that they've ever actually read Rohmer, or considered him in the context of his time. Still, I think there is little doubt in anybody's mind today that Fu, with his dastardly schemes to do to the "white race" what much of the white race had been trying to do to everybody else, is no longer taken seriously — that even as the U.S. and Great Britain continue to confront the prospect of cultural and economic conflict with China, both at home and abroad, Fu is unlikely ever to re-emerge as a figure of anything other than parody and ridicule.

In fact, Fu's decline got well underway while Rohmer was still alive and writing. In the 1950's, the British radio comedy series The Goon Show featured a recurring character called Fred Fu Manchu, the famous Chinese bamboo saxophonist (which may have been a riff on "Sax" Rohmer, but probably wasn't... saxophones appeared for no good reason in many of the Goon scripts). Not only did Fred speak in a ridiculous sing-song voice, and substitute "L"s for his "R"s (which is, by the way, a cruel imitation of the way Japanese, not Chinese, speakers often pronounce English), but he also took great pains to introduce extra "L"s where they didn't belong, just to get the point across. Fred Fu Manchu vowed revenge on the White Devils (and their metal saxophones) after being defeated in an obviously-rigged saxophone competition, in which the English competitor won after blowing a single note ("By the merest chance," says the Emcee, "it so happens that Major Bloodnok's name is already engraved on this magnificent silver cup!")

Fred Fu Manchu was invented and performed by the demented genius Spike Milligan, who never intended the character as a slur against Asians. The joke was aimed entirely at British xenophobia and self-satisfaction — the very traits that had summoned the original Fu Manchu into existence in the first place (for another example, take Milligan's idea of the Chinese Water Torture: making an Englishman take a bath). Just to make the point even more obvious, the Goons would invariably preface the word "Chinese" — in any context, no matter how benign — with the word "fiendish". Clearly by the time Fred Fu Manchu got his very own episode of the Goon Show, in December 1954, the original Fu had lost a great deal of his potency... even though Rohmer would go on to write two more full-length Fu Manchu novels before both he and the Goon Show ceased to exist.

So far has Fu's reputation fallen that there's a tendency to look back on the evil Doctor and the attitudes that produced him (and allowed him to become so immensely popular) as a quaint aberration from a bygone era. It's not that simple. Politicians, pundits and demagogues of all sorts continue to address legitimate issues of trade and immigration using language and imagery that don't seem so far removed from the old days of the "Yellow Peril". By this time, multiple generations of Chinese- and Japanese-Americans and British have been integrated into the mainstream of the culture, and this has helped to dispel the sense of Otherness that contributed to the rise of Fu. But even if the peril isn't likely to be called "Yellow" anymore, you have merely to substitute one of any number of other stereotyped races, ideologies or religious traditions to see the whole "____ Peril" phenomonon is still with us.

But there's another insidious — thanks for the adjective, Sax! — yes; insidious part of Fu's legacy. Consider this: there's another Asiatic criminal on the loose these days, plotting strange and apocalyptic attacks on Western civilization. Like Fu, he heads a shadowy network of brutal henchmen; like Fu, he hides in unlikely lairs, emerging once in a while to mutter that the World will hear from him again. We're even told that, like Fu, he wants to bring back a lost order — re-establish a long-outmoded dynasty... and he will use any means, any means at all, to gain this end. You know the man I'm talking about.

Here's the point: he is not Fu Manchu. And I really wish so many people in the political and media arenas would stop treating him as though he were. I think it might help a tiny bit if this Fu-figure were either captured or unambiguously deaded (thanks for the verb, Spike!). I hear our leaders talking about our current mission in the Middle East, and the words they use sound to me uncomfortably like the "White Man's Burden" language of the British Empire. My conservative friends will accuse me of Bush-bashing here, but I see this sort of thing on both sides of the political spectrum: the tendency to reduce the conflicts of cultures, religions and ethnicities to the simplistic black-and-white imagery of pulp fiction from a century ago. Sax Rohmer's escapist racism was no solution to England's genuine conflicts with China and its other imperial outposts; and neither does it do us any good to respond to the real-world problems of terrorism and the rise of militant Islam by pretending to be Nayland Smith.

You may get the feeling I'm stalling here, and you're right. I'm trying to avoid actually getting to our movie for today, since I have such long-standing bad memories of it. Jess Franco's Blood of Fu Manchu used to be a staple on TV during my childhood, under its export title Kiss and Kill; and later on, this same chopped-up, censored version showed up on public domain video with additional titles like Against All Odds or Kiss of Death. Under any title, it was just awful; and the obvious skips and blurs the TV print used to get rid of all the nudity just made the situation more depressing.

Blue Underground's remastered DVD has made the film a little more bearable. Blue Underground released the movie, along with Franco's follow-up, Castle of Fu Manchu, an uncut copy of The Bloody Judge (also a Franco film), and John Llewellyn Moxey's Circus of Fear, as part of the so-called "Christopher Lee Collection". The set should have been called the "Harry Alan Towers Collection", since all the films were produced by that legendary British con-man; and they're far more representative of Towers' work than they are of Lee's. Nevertheless... those of us who bought the set specifically to see Franco's fascinating failure, The Bloody Judge, had a big surprise in store for us when we got around to the Fu flicks. Prior to this release, the best thing anybody could think of to say about Blood of Fu Manchu was that it wasn't Castle... (the film of which Towers remarked, "We've done the impossible: we've finally killed Fu Manchu!"). But with all the naked female flesh restored, fewer fractious edits, and a clear, wide-screen print to watch, we could see that the biggest problems with the movie weren't really Jess Franco's fault.

Franco, for his part, did a pretty good job bringing the story to life, with a handful of really imaginative sequences and comparatively few that are completely lacking in interest. The photography by Manual Merino is a little less out-of-focus than usual; and the music by Daniel White, if not up to the standards of his best work, isn't all that bad. Rather, the worst part of the film is its insipid script, credited to "Peter Welbeck".

You might think that Welbeck, like Christopher Lee, was getting sick of Towers' Fu series — this was, after all, the fourth Fu film Towers had made in as many years — and had decided to rebel by writing a deliberately ridiculous screenplay. But then you do a little digging, and realize that "Welbeck" was none other than Towers himself... and the mind reels.

What makes the situation worse is the knowledge that Towers had bought the rights to all the Rohmer stories before he'd made the first of the series, Face of Fu Manchu, in 1965. You'd figure from Towers' reputation as a cheap, fast producer that once he'd paid for the stories, he'd use them. But instead, Towers sat down and wrote his own — with results like Blood... and Castle.... The cliché is that the Chinese are supposed to be "inscrutable", Fu most of all; but in this little history, it's Towers who comes off as the most resistant to scrutiny (even with an intense scrute).

Blood... opens with Fu's black-clad lascars dragging ten captive women through a jungle. One of the first things we notice is that the whip-wielding lascars look remarkably non-Asian. In fact, they're all Brazilian extras. The next thing we notice is this: the scene is so deliriously exploitative — women falling out of their scanty clothing as they stagger through the jungle in hoods and chains — that the poor male extras seem embarrassed by it all. The looks on their faces, as they half-heartedly crack their whips, show a sense of shame that no sinister henchman ever displayed in Rohmer's novels.

Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) has brought these ten captives to his jungle lair as the beginning of his newest plot to take over the world. He has studied the long-lost secrets of an ancient South American civilization, and used them to devise a sinister plan: each of the girls will be bitten by a certain type of snake. This particular snake's venom is not fatal, provided the victim is a woman. Instead, the venom has two effects: first, it will turn her into a mindless, pliable slave (oh, well — something usually does in stories like this). Then, the venom will permeate her body, especially the moist and absorbent tissues of the mouth... so that if she kisses a man, the venom will pass from her body to his, producing a much-more-lethal result.

(This is the sort of long-lost secret that should really have stayed lost... because, of course, it is complete bullshit. If you're wondering how ten lethal puckers are going to help Fu conquer the world, read on: it gets sillier.)

The very first person on Fu's list of potential kiss-recipients is his old enemy, Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Richard Greene). Thus a beautiful, mysterious woman shows up at Smith's doorway one night; and without a word, she throws herself into the detective's arms and plants a big smooch on his lips.

Lots of Men's Adventure Stories open this way: a girl shows up in the dark of night and collapses into the hero's arms. Rohmer himself started a novel this way, with the hero so clearly standing in for the author that the fantasy is almost embarrassing. Still, in spite of the absurdity of it all, you have to admit it's fun to have this typical gesture turned upside down. Evidently Fu has been reading his own adventures!

Nayland Smith's sidekick Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford) chases after the girl, but she is run down by a lascar-driven car before he can catch her. His examination of the corpse reveals the presence of the poison. He returns to Nayland Smith's house to find the detective has been stricken blind.

Unfortunately, some conventions are impossible to subvert; and in this case, we're stuck with that hoary old device,the Hero's Death Exemption. That which kills ordinary mortals must linger in the case of the main character. So it is that we find out that the snake venom is going to take six whole weeks to kill Nayland Smith. This gives him and Dr. Petrie plenty of time to track down Fu Manchu, find the antidote — you knew there was going to be an antidote, didn't you? — and cause some sort of explosion in the end... even using the means available to them in the 1920's, when the action is supposed to be taking place.

BUT — and here's the thing that may have attracted Jess Franco's attention, over and above the appeal of an old-fashioned adventure story — this leaves the great Sir Denis blind and ill for most of the movie. Franco has little sympathy for the "good guys" in his films, finding them usually bland and uninteresting. It must have amused him to have the nominal hero reduced to near-impotence.

Still, with Sir Denis out of the way, we have to have somebody hot on the trail of the Chinese supervillain. Dear readers, if any of you are upset over the implicit racism of the character of Fu Manchu, or of having a Caucasian actor playing him, you're going to be just thrilled when you meet our new hero. His name is Karl Jensen, and he's that universal ambassador of ethnic goodwill in the period between the World Wars... the strapping, blue-eyed, blond-haired German.

Jensen, with his sidekick Dr. Wagner (whose name doesn't make the Aryan Dr. Jensen any less offensive), just happens to be exploring the same nameless South American country where Fu Manchu has his current lair. Jensen is a friend of Nayland Smith, and he has some idea that the Chinese mastermind is somewhere nearby. Still, he's taken by surprise when the ancient ruins he's come to explore turn out to be Fu's actual hideout. Dr. Wagner is shot and killed by a bandof nefarious hanchmen; however, Jensen — in spite of being at the bottom of a ravine, with gunmen in strategically ideal positions in the rocks above him — is able to fight his way out from certain death. The lascars prove unable to hit anything they aim at — they were probably shooting warning shots into the air when they got Dr. Wagner — while Karl Jensen is able to pick off an evil henchman with practically every shot. I'm sure the fact that the henchmen are all Brazilians playing Asians, and Jensen is a strapping, blue-eyed, blond-haired German, is purely coincidental.

Jensen rides off to the regional Governor's mansion. This unnamed South American country has a stereotypical, comically corrupt government; the Governor is playing a one-person game of chess in his opulent palace when Jensen comes to call (Daniel White's music for this scene sounds uncannily like a samba version of Deustchland über alles). As Jensen tries to explain his predicament, he happens to notice on the chessboard. Naturally, in addition to being a strapping, blond-haired, blue-eyed, brilliant German-type archaeologist, and a dead shot to boot, our Karl is also an expert chess player. He picks up a black piece and checkmates the Governor... which would be impressive, I suppose, were it not for the fact that it was white's turn (oh, boy; just think of the racially-insensitive conclusions I could have drawn if the board had been the other way around!).

The Governor, being comically corrupt, decides the best way he can get some chess practice is to arrest Jensen at once for the murder of Dr. Wagner.

OK: so this means both Nayland Smith and Karl Jensen are temporarily out of the picture. Who else is there to further the plot? None other than Ursula Wagner, daughter of Carl's ill-fated companion. Ursula is a doctor herself, tending to the local rural population in a clinic. Ursula is in town for supplies, unaware of her father's death, when into the town rides the local bandito and his gang of robbers.

If you thought Fu was a rotten ethnic stereotype, wait until you meet Sancho Lopez. Lopez — or S-Lo, as I prefer to call him — is a rotten Latin American stereotype: a fat, oily, drunken, amoral thug, with a stupid leer on his face and a ridiculous red sombrero on his head. S-Lo and Ursula trade barbs for a few minutes, until S-Lo magnanimously allows her to depart unmolested. Once Ursula is safely out of the scene, S-Lo and his men begin their campaign of "comical" rape and murder.

Sancho Lopez

Forget the fact we now have three different heroes to keep track of: this is where things begin to get complicated. Fu Manchu has the false impression that Lopez, rather than Jensen, is working for Nayland Smith. So he sends his daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) with one of the Snake Venom Girls to go get rid of the bandito. That night Snake Venom Girl, wearing a flimsy dress that leaves nothing to the imagination, slithers her way into the robbers' camp. S-Lo's thugs are sitting around, drinking and groping the village women. Snake Venom Girl begins to do a sultry dance for the men. Cuddling up to one drink-sodden bandit, she toys with him for a moment and then plants a wet one right on his lips. Now, remember: Nayland Smith has six weeks before the poison kills him. The bandit, being an extremely minor character, clutches his head and dies in mere moments.

Nobody notices the death of the robber, though; they think he's merely passed out from too much cheap liquor. Snake Venom Girl then sidles her way over to fat, loathesome S-Lo, who has not one but two girls hanging from his arms. While S-Lo grins and drools, Snake Venom Girl does her most seductive dance. But Fu and Lin Tang haven't considered the depths of the bandit's depravity. If there's one thing that turns him on as much as the rape of an unwilling victim... it's the murder of a willing one. So just as Snake Venom Girl is about to give S-Lo a kiss, he shoots her dead. The girl falls to the ground — though there's not a mark either on her or on her skimpy costume to show where she's been shot.

Now that the plan has been thwarted, Lin Tang goes to Plan B: she sends the lascars in to massacre the drunken bandits. Remember: the point of Plan A was to kill Sancho Lopez. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when after all the bandits except our Sancho have been disposed of, and the fat man is just about to have his belly slit open by Fu's henchmen, Lin Tang orders them to wait: they need to take him alive!

This is the point where you begin to suspect they were making everything up as they went along.

As Lin Tang and her lascars take their greasy captive off to Fu Manchu, they don't realize that Ursula has been hiding in the shadows watching them. As soon as the proverbial coast is clear, Ursula runs off to the palace of the Governor, where — surprise! — she meets up with Karl. The Governor, who by this time is tired of losing games of chess to his "prisoner", lets Karl go with Ursula to track down Fu. On their way through the jungle, Karl and Ursula run into — another surprise! — Dr. Petrie and the nearly-incapacitated Nayland Smith. Stopping only to place Sir Denis in the care of some sympathetic locals, our intrepid Fu Fighters go off to get themselves captured.

The Good Guys always have to be captured in movies like this, if for no other reason than so that the Bad Guy can waste valuable world-conquering time explaining his Master Plan to them. Ursula and Dr. Petrie do their part to live up to this tradition by going off into the jungle wearing bright white clothing. Not to be outdone, Karl attracts the attention of the entire jungle by firing multiple shots at a poor little snake, hanging harmlessly in a tree, whose presence disturbs Ursula. Soon they are taken prisoner by none other than Sancho Lopez: Fu has decided to let the bandit live (maybe Against All Odds wasn't such a bad title for this movie after all...). Sancho and the lascars have no trouble catching Ursula and Dr. Petrie; Karl puts up a struggle and is left for dead. As usual, the Bad Guys fail to make sure Karl is really dead, and as usual, he isn't.

In this film, the capture of the heroes is particularly important, since Fu's plan so far has been underwhelming. How exactly was he going to take over the world using ten — excuse me; by now it's down to about seven or eight poison-lipped beauties? Well, by this time Fu has realized his fiendish scheme lacks grandeur; and now that he has an audience, he can reveal his new improved plan. All over the world, Fu has placed secret stock footage from other Harry Alan Towers movies, which — when the word is given, and provided nobody tells Shirley Eaton — will release large quantities of the mysterious snake venom in the world's major capitals.

Faced with the imminent destruction of civilization, the death of his friend Nayland Smith and the torture of his friends, Dr. Petrie's main concern is — WARNING: offensive anti-English racial stereotype! — his flask of tea is growing cold.

I will leave it to you to discover how, if at all, Dr. Petrie and his fair-skinned friends escape from the Yellow Peril. I'll spare you the jaw-dropping explanation of how Fu Manchu's poison can be counteracted — you wouldn't believe me anyway — and I'll leave to your imagination what happens to the quintuple-crossing Sancho Lopez. Instead, let's take a moment to consider Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu and Tsai Chin's Lin Tang.

Lee does his best with the role, which is to say he brings to it his usual dignity and power. However, he never for a moment looks like anything other than Christopher Lee in yellowface. And, really, that's fine. It's my opinion that, unlike Charlie Chan (who could conceivably be portrayed by an ethically Asian actor with at least a shred of dignity), Fu Manchu must always be played by a white guy in yellowface, if he's to be played at all. That's what he is in the novels, and that's what he will always be. He was a product of (white) British political and economic anxiety, and the very worst thing that could ever be done with him is to have him played by a genuine Asian actor.

Which brings us to the lovely and talented Tsai Chin, in a role that does her no justice at all... She was well aware of the racist character of the story, but opportunities for an "ethnic" actress were limited at the time — even for an actress who had studied at RADA. And it wasn't even as though racism was the worst part of the indignity. Lin Tang was supposed to be cruel, impassive and — here's that dreadful word again — "inscrutable". Translation: don't act. Though she tried her best to get Towers to liven up her character a bit, Towers didn't listen (perhaps she should have spoken to "Welbeck"?). As a result, the poor woman spends yet another installment of the series with nearly nothing to do.

Fast forward to the early 21st century. In 2005, Shanghai-born Tsai Chin was one of several ethnically Chinese actresses that created quite a stir by appearing as Japanese characters in an American film.

Some of the criticism came from Japan, where the inaccuracy of the film's depictions of that country's culture caused resentment. Stronger condemnation came from China, where the Chinese actresses who participated in the film were castigated for playing sympathetic Japanese characters. Japan has never officially apologized for its brutal occupation of Manchuria prior to World War II, when they massacred staggering numbers of people and attempted to surpress the indigenous culture; and China has never forgiven them for this. So now this situation brings up some interesting questions: considering the unflattering way Japanese people are often portrayed in Chinese commercial cinema, is it ever appropriate for a Chinese actor to appear as a Japanese person? And what happens when the roles of occupier and occupied are reversed: would it ever be appropriate for an ethnically Chinese actor to appear as a Tibetan?

In the meantime, still more criticism was leveled at the cast from Asian Americans, who used the film as evidence that mainstream (i.e., mainly white) America was unwilling and unable to differentiate between Asian peoples. So while we're at it, is it appropriate for an ethnically-Korean male actor born in Japan to play a Japanese Geisha on Broadway? Or for a Japanese actor to play Korean characters on a show like M*A*S*H?

Well... yes, it is. At least, I think so. Probably. Because in the end, I think the most important consideration is not the actor or actress, but the role. Few people criticize Laurence Olivier or Placido Domingo in the role of Othello, and nobody in their right mind would call either of their performances "blackface". Sure, there are plenty of talented black actors and singers who perform in either the dramatic or operatic version of Shakespeare's play. But why deny a great performer of any race a chance to play that particular role? I can't think of anyone who'd object to a black or Asian actor playing King Lear.

At the same time, there are plenty of roles that should probably no longer be played by anybody, and in my opinion Fu Manchu is one of those. The cinema world did hear from Fu again, one more time, after Franco's Castle of Fu Manchu seemed to have got rid of him for good. In 1980, an obviously-dying Peter Sellers starred in his last film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, in the dual role of Fu and Nayland Smith. As is no doubt evident from the presence of both Sellers and the word "fiendish" in the title, it's not Rohmer's archfiend but the Goons' Fred Fu Manchu who appears in the film. But Fred Fu Manchu was never really Sellers' character, and Spike Milligan, who was the real prime mover behind the Goon Show, was not involved with The Fiendish Plot.... Thus the film was an uneasy mix of a Rohmer story (Re-Enter Fu Manchu, from 1957) and some dimly-remembered, badly-realized Goon Show antics. The result was a fiasco. Six months later, Peter Ustinov embarrassed himself mightily in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, a film in which all of the Asian characters were performed by Caucasian actors. Intended as a satire, Dragon Queen instead lapsed into tired stereotype at best, and offensive ethnic humor at worst. No longer suited even for parody, both Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan faded into cinematic oblivion.

And yet, here in 2006 — when unwanted sequels and ill-advised remakes are the rule rather than the exception in Hollywood — I wouldn't be surprised if someone wasn't making a pitch for a new Fu movie right now. I'm on the lookout for Lymph of Fu Manchu any day now. And if Hollywood stays true to form in the insult-to-injury department, I'm betting the title role will probably go to Tim Allen.

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