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September 20, 2010 | by  | in Film |
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The Face of Fu Manchu

The Face of Fu Manchu
Director: Don Sharp

If there’s one thing we really don’t get a lot of in Wellington’s cinema scene, it’s older films on the big screen. Aside from the exorbitantly-priced Wellington Film Society, 2009 was a bit of a classic cinema drought, with the few that were screened being pretty run-of-the-mill—Casablanca, Gremlins et al. 2010 has seen retrospective screenings pick up in the city, with Senso, The Red Shoes and Once Upon the Time in the West showing at the New Zealand International Film Festival and the Embassy increasing their screenings of various classics, from The Wages of Fear to Fight Club. However, the New Zealand Film Archive still remains the best place for (cheap) screenings of an eclectic selection of films that have spent too long absent from the cinema screen, of which The Face of Fu Manchu is the latest.

The Face of Fu Manchu is the first film in Constantin Film Produktion’s 1960s revival of the turn-of-the-century Asian bogeyman, and the most well-known iteration of the personification of Yellow Peril. Christopher Lee, who is not Asian at all, plays the titular villain, a “Chinaman” with psychic powers and a plan to kill everything on earth if his wishes are not adhered to (we never find out what those wishes are—he could’ve just wanted chocolate bars or world peace or Debbie Reynolds). Tracking him down is Scotland Yard commissioner Nayland Smith (Nigel Green, who plays Smith as a ludicrous stereotype of upper-class Britishness) and German scientist Carl Jannsen (played by James Mason knock-off Joachim Fuchsberger), who dodder about for ninety minutes, loudly revealing their plans and punching a few “Orientals”, before pulling an elaborate plan out of their arses in order to destroy Manchu forever.

In no universe is The Face of Fu Manchu a good film. It’s mind-bogglingly racist, from the stereotype-laden central villain to the blasé attitudes toward race the protagonists harbour, to the laughable attempts to pass off white people as Chinese. However, the film doesn’t pretend to be anything more than B-movie schlock, and it strings setpieces together with surprising energy and an overarching sense of fun. It’s not high art, and its outmoded racial views are distasteful at best, but it’s a pulpy adventure that doesn’t forget its roots and looks great on the big screen.


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