Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Der Fluch der gelben Schlange / The Curse of the Yellow Snake

This CCC krimi from 1963 feels very much like a cross between Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer, with a Fu Manchu like mastermind plotting world domination, beginning with the expulsion of the British from Hong Kong.

In other words it's the kind of film that's highly problematic in these more politically correct times in that its stereotypes go beyond the usual ones of an imaginary / idealised England, which we insiders can always laugh off as camp or kitsch, to also encompass those of an Other culture, where it can be difficult to find an acceptable position to take.

But rather than refusing to engage with such films – and here I would include the Harry Alan Towers Fu Manchu films along with the likes of Hammer's Terror of the Tongs and Stranglers of Bombay – I would argue that it is the cult film fan's responsibility to see them and attempt to contextualise them so that they can be understood as the products of their time, place and circumstances.

Here, of course, what we have is a 1960s German adaptation of a 1920s British novel. One defence could be to argue that the orientalist aspects of the piece are more ignorant and innocent and thus excusable than those of the contemporaneous Dr No, while Caucasian actor Pinkus Braun's Eurasian villain is likewise not in the same league of grossly insensitive caricatures as Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffanys.

In other words, there's always some way of making excuses for the things we like, so why should cult fans be any different?

Some nice expressionistic compositions, albeit compromised by panning and scanning from the original 1.66:1 to 1.33:1

The story begins in a studio-set Hong Kong as two agents of the Fighting Hand society steal the Yellow Snake, a legendary talisman that guarantees victory in war to whomsoever possesses it and begins the battle on the Day of the Dragon, November 17.

Our hero, Clifford Lynn (Joachim Fuchsberger), immediately raises the prospect of an inside job to his adoptive father, Joe Bray (Fritz Tillmann), that the murdered guardian of the hidden snake might have been “more loyal to his colour than you think,” and that his half-brother, Graham / Fing Su (Braun), could well be the one behind the crime.

He's right, of course, but until everything turns to type midway through, we've got an interesting subtext of filial piety as Cliff is send to London to undergo an arranged marriage to one of Bray's business partners which neither he nor either of the prospective brides to be are particularly happy about, all to be overseen by Fing Su...

And, even when Fing Su and Cliff show their true colours – i.e. yellow and red, white and blue respectively – as the true villain and hero of the piece, there's still an element of this remaining, in that Fing Su's loyalty, as his choice of name serves to indicate, is to his late mother's side of the family and her motherland...

The two brothers can hardly bear to look at one another

Thus, though I wouldn't say Fing Su is quite presented as more sinned against than sinning, things are definitely more complicated than they initially appear – much, indeed, like Rohmer's novels with their self-deconstructing presentation of Petrie's desires for the 'exotic' Kâramanèh.

And in the end that is perhaps why I so enjoy popular works like these: they are not trying to be art, but only to entertain their audience and, in so doing, unselfconsciously express the unconscious desires, fears and beliefs of this audience. (More awkwardly, of course, they also helped shape them at the time they were originally circulated; but again I'd say that something like the Indiana Jones films are far more pernicious here today precisely because they'll be approached by more people unthinkingly. In most circles you don't have to defend your liking for them, whereas if you watch Eurotrash or whatever you have to work through to your position.)

An obligatory this is England shot

Other pleasures to be had from the film include Fuchsberger's charming yet somewhat grey knight performance; Werner Peters' characteristically shifty mercenary businessman; a woman and child as property subtext if we want to look for it, and some nice expressionistic angles and lighting from director Franz Josef Gottlieb and cinematographer Siegfried Hold.

As with Eddi Arent's comic relief, the score is however likely to divide audiences. Rather than attempting to convey orienticity the composers take a decidedly modernist experimental approach, with strange electronic noises perhaps reminiscent of the Darmstadt School or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. While they work in the context of the film, especially as many are emphathetic to its visual images, I don't think they'd be the best cues to have on a krimi compilation CD.

A useful article on Fu Manchu derivatives: http://www.njedge.net/~knapp/clones.htm

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