Fu Manchu lives again in blockbuster

Updated: 2013-05-15 06:21

By Ho Chi-ping (HK Edition)

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Fu Manchu lives again in blockbuster

The latest Hollywood blockbuster, Iron Man 3, centers on the free world's fight against a hateful and monstrously evil arch villain called The Mandarin - a megalomaniac who is actually a cheap reprise of Dr Fu Manchu, an odious figure oozing racially-slanted remarks and attitudes who constantly stirred anti-Chinese hatred in a series of pre-war black-and-white movies.

Worse still, the film featuring this disgraceful caricature of a murderous Oriental was partly financed with Chinese money, while the version screening across the mainland to full houses since May 1 has been watered down with many of The Mandarin's vilest statements and actions cynically edited out. Apart from the nastiest bits being white-washed away, one totally different pro-mainland segment lasting four minutes has been inserted to further soften the plot, bringing in mainland actors Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing as sops to Chinese audiences.

But the original being shown in the United States and other countries across the world positively glories in every outrageous utterance and gesture by The Mandarin. Inserting yet another racial undertone into the film, his character is played by the Anglo-Indian Sir Ben Kingsley, who spouts his hateful rants in a spectral voice and is garbed in cloaks and other clobber reminiscent of a mounted Mongolian general from the days of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire.

Fu Manchu lives again in blockbuster

Kingsley says he hit on giving The Mandarin his sepulchral voice after viewing pre-war newsreels of the dictators Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin delivering their froth-mouthed calls to arms to their respective people. While digging in filmdom's archives he almost certainly took a long look at pre-war actor Boris Karloff's portrayals of Dr Fu Manchu's racially-charged pronouncements as in The Mask of Dr Fu Manchu (1932), when he offers up a virginal blonde to an Asian mob and spouts these infamous lines: "Would you have maidens such as these for your wives? Then conquer and breed! Kill the white man - and take his women!" Another racist "gem" from the same film is: "Men of Asia - the skies are red with the thunderbolts of Genghis Khan! They rain down on the white race!"

Sex also raised its ugly head in many a Fu Manchu plot, with the villain using either hypnosis or drugs to gain control of innocent white women. Additionally, Fu's daughter Fah Lo Suee was a female version of her wicked father, being a depraved nymphomaniac with an insatiable lust. In one plot she orders her slaves to strip and whip the white hero until he falls unconscious, whereupon he is carried to her bedchamber for purposes that the audience is left to imagine.

As the star of the series, Karloff was enhanced by makeup artists to look the personification of Oriental evil. His squinty eyes exuded malevolence, his two-inch fingernails were shaped like an eagle's talons, his thin moustaches drooped down either side of a mouth clenched in a permanent snarl while yellow powder was used to lighten his face.

How is it that the fictitious Fu Manchu has lived on for so long as the very epitome of Asian evil with such a passionate hatred of white men - though not necessarily white women? The character first appeared in a novel by Sax Rohmer published in 1912 titled The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu. After World War I, the first of a seemingly never-ending series of Fu Manchu films hit the screen, and their mix of Oriental evil and mystery pitted against squeaky-clean white protagonists struck a chord with Western cinemagoers. More recently, the Fu Manchu prototype moved on to the pages of Marvel comic books, morphing into The Mandarin, and from comics to the Iron Man blockbuster series of films.

The Mandarin wasn't the only Fu Manchu knockoff to make a splash in the comic books; Ming the Merciless, an Oriental despot from the Planet Mongo, also cut a highly menacing figure across the pages of Flash Gordon science fiction comics.

Rohmer, the creator of Fu Manchu, was a former Fleet Street crime reporter who said he based the character on Chinese underworld figures he encountered on his crime rounds. In a follow-up novel, The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu, he described Fu in these words: "Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all of the resources of a wealthy government . . . imagine that awful being and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."

The author is vice-chairman and secretary-general of China Energy Fund Committee, a think tank on energy- and China-related issues.

(HK Edition 05/15/2013 page1)