Friday, May 15, 2009

Fu Manchu Lou Review

I review The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu at today. This was a tricky one. Sax Rohmer had some very offensive attitudes about Asians, but his character has cast a very long shadow over pop and pulp culture, immitations showing up everywhere from Flash Gordon to Jonny Quest. And before I read the work, I had no idea how much the Batman mythology drew from it. So, I tried to speak to the historical influence without excusing the inexcusable racism. Oddly, Rohmer himself dances a fine line between saying horrible things about the Chinese and being clearly in love with his creation, who is far more the star of the work than any of the "good guys" in the book.

One thing I didn't really get into at length is Fu Manchu in cinema (Christopher Lee played him five times) and the whole tradition of white (and largely British) actors portraying Asian characters. Perhaps because of the timing, it has me thinking about their portrayal in Star Trek and James Bond. Remember the scene in "The Naked Now" when George Takei runs shirtless and intoxicated through the corridors of the Enterprise menacing passerbys with his rapier? Originally, the producers wanted him to do karate, and George refused, saying that in the future, martial arts wouldn't be restricted to Asians. He suggested Sulu be a fencer instead. (Always pissed me off that they later had him do martial arts in The Search for Spock, but I guess the point had been made by then.) They get to play on this in the new film, where Young Sulu volunteers that he has "combat training" without identifying what style of combat. But it made me think of what an elegant and dignified man Takei is, and how much he did just by being himself, and how, in contrast to all the films that show a post-apocalytpic future (as Terminator: Salvation and The Road will shortly and jointly do yet again), Star Trek has a message even when it doesn't have a message. By its very nature, simply showing a multicultural, tolerant future, where open-minded rationalists are on a mission of scientific and cultural exploration, and poverty, disease, and warfare are considered backwards, is a pretty damn important meme, and I'm glad its still out there and broadcasting loud and clear.

James Bond because years ago I read an interview with David Yip, who plays CIA liaison agent Chuck Lee in the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill. Yip said that when he was called in to audition for Bond, he expected to be playing a stereotype and was surprised, honored, and proud to learn that the character was a CIA agent, race-unspecified. It was a landmark moment for him. And something that seems no big deal now was still a big deal in 1985. I grew up in a pretty segregated community in the Deep South, where a lot of the attitudes weren't very tolerant, but I had a couple things going for me that my peers didn't share. One, I took martial arts from a man from Tokyo, who had several black belts, a law degree, and held the official rank of samarai (whatever that means today). So while I was growing up in an almost exclusively-white environment, I had direct and daily exposure to an extremely intelligent, impressive, accomplished and powerful non-Caucasian from an early age, even as I lived in a monoculture. And I was into Star Trek. It was pretty hard to buy into negative stereotypes of other humans when I was totally okay with Vulcans and Klingons, right?

The south isn't what it used to be at all. My town now has strong indian, mexican, and asian communities. It has a thriving independent film scene, a thriving gay community, more than a few fantastic restaurants, and the pool halls serving Bud and Michelob have largely given way to pubs serving Newcastle and microbrews. But it wasn't like this when I left it several decades ago, and I still know people from my childhood who themselves have failed to grow with the changing time and evolving town. And I think that it was science ficiton in general, and Star Trek in specific, with a dose of martial arts, that got me out of that mindset. And I am bloody grateful.


Derek Johnson said...

Interesting you brought up David Yip in A View to a Kill. I would have thought Joseph Wiseman as Dr. Julius No also would have deserved a mention. Indeed, Fleming's Doctor No today reads like a homage to Fu Manchu.

Lou Anders said...

I do mention Dr No in the piece on as one of the many Fu Manchu inspirations. I mention Yip here in *contrast* to stereotype portrayals in film. Yip said in interviews that he was delighted to be cast as a "CIA agent who happened to be Asian" and not some guy in a laundry mat that Bond drove his sports car through. A View to a Kill isn't exactly a good movie, but Yip's comments made an impression nonetheless.

Tim Akers said...

re: The South. The older my parents get the more my thoughts return to the tarheel state, and the thirteen hours by car it takes me to get there. I am increasingly impressed with how thoroughly it isn't the place I left eighteen years ago. That hasn't done much to improve the humidity, but it's done a hell of a job on the beer selection.

Lou Anders said...

Our situations very similar. I left for 17 years. I tell people when I left it was Baptist or Presbyterian, Bud or Michelob, pool or darts, BBQ or hamburgers. When I returned, there were dozens of sushi bars, Newcastle Brown and Guinness on tap everywhere, a huge Hispanic and Asian population, it was not uncommon to hear people speaking Russian or other eastern European languages, and I saw Jane Seymour sitting at the table next to me in a restaurant that Gourmet magazine had named the #5 best in the entire USA. She was dining with the head of Saks Fifth Avenue. So, not the town I left earlier either at all, but still room for improvement.

John Mark Henry said...

They get to play on this in the new film, where Young Sulu volunteers that he has "combat training" without identifying what style of combat.If I recall correctly, Kirk later asks Sulu what kind of "combat training" he has. Sulu responds simply, "Fencing." Then Sulu gets some swordfighting action on the platform of that planetary drill. Not the same as "The Naked Time," of course, but a nod to the original Sulu.

Great post.


Lou Anders said...

Yes, that's exactly what happens. Sulu volunteers with the ambiguous "combat training" and then it's only revealed later on the platform that it's fencing. It works two ways - both as a nod to the original series episode, and by playing to the expectations of those who don't know it, which in turn invokes the behind-the-scenes of the original series. Very clever.