‘THE WORLD WILL HEAR FROM ME AGAIN…’: ORIENTALISM IN THE CINEMA (AND IN LAW) – Geoffrey Samuel

In an earlier blog mention was made of ‘orientalism’. This is a notion that will be familiar to comparative lawyers thanks to the work of Teemu Ruskola who has coined the expression ‘legal orientalism’ ((2002) 101 Michigan LR 179). ‘Orientalism’ is a post-colonial word giving expression to a particular kind of colonialist vision of Asian societies (above all Chinese society) and it is associated with the philosopher Edward Said (Orientalism, Penguin, 1975).

According to Ruskola, “Orientalism as a discourse entails the projection onto the Oriental Other of various sorts of things that ‘we’ are not” (op.cit, at 209). Now Ruskola is not so much arguing that Western comparatists have all been racist in their representation of law (or its absence) in China (though some undoubtedly were: see Ruskola, op.cit, at 183). What he is saying is that their approaches to Asian legal systems have been coloured by their own legal mentalités which have resulted in a representation of these cultures that can be biased and stereotyped. As Ruskola indicates, even the notion of ‘law’ itself is problematic because it is of Western origin; and so, for example, when applied to other non-Western societies, such as those of Asia, Western comparative law scholarship can often conclude that there is an “absence of law” (The Cambridge Companion to Comparative Law, 2012, at 260-261). There is, in other words, a serious epistemological issue with respect to the notion of ‘law’ in comparative law and this issue, although often problematic within Western countries themselves, is particularly acute when applied to say China. And it is not just ‘law’ in a narrow sense; viewing Asian societies through Western disciplines in general – politics, sociology, economics and philosophy –can be ‘colonial’ in orientation (see Said, supra).

A more recent work by Sir Christopher Frayling develops Said’s thesis in looking at ‘orientalism’ in popular culture. Frayling describes this colonial vision as a “white, public school view of Chinese people” particularly evident in the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer and the Jam9200000025418489es Bond stories of Ian Fleming, translated equally into the film versions of these works (see Frayling, The Yellow Peril, 2014). It is the purpose of this blog to look at some of these films because whatever we may think of them they do display elements of cinematic interest. Indeed several of them fall within a category — not it must be said at once a scientific one — that has been called ‘cult’ (a notion to be developed in a later blog).

In addition, this blog will equally be devoted to the work of probably the most interesting and insightful of all the film writers working in the last forty years of the last century. Raymond Durgnat (1932-2002) was a pioneer with regard to writing seriously about popular cinema in all its forms and he was, as we shall see, one of the first to comprehend the orientalist nature of aspects of this cinema. He was also a stringent critic of the British Film Institute writers which made him something of an outsider. However, this latter body has to its credit finally recognised his importance (see HK Miller (ed), The Essential Raymond Durgnat, BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2014; and see also the obituary written by another leading film writer Charles Barr).

But let us return to Frayling. As he indicates, the most notorious of these orientalist characters is the one created by the writer Sax Romer. This is the character Fu Manchu, a Chinese criminal Master Mind whose ‘tentacles’ stretch across the whole world and whose aim is to control this world by any means possible. Sax Romer, it must be said, had about as much knowledge of China and Chinese culture as this blogger has of nuclear physics, but no matter. His Fu Manchu character was an ideal attraction for Hollywood and for the English film studios of the late 1950’s and the 1960s. The first Fu Manchu film (The Mask of Fu Manchu) was a Hollywood production that opened in 1932 starring Boris Karloff as the evil Chinese criminal. The film, well described by Frayling (at 296ff), is quite astonishingly sadistic, racist and orientalist and unsurprisingly provoked a complaint from the Chinese Consulate at Los Angeles. Frayling, describing the background to the making of the movie, reveals that it could have been much worse, particularly with regard to Fu Manchu’s daughter whose character and behaviour is nothing less than a heady mix of sadism and sexuality, much of which still comes over in the released film. Fu Manchu is not much better himself as he delights in the torture and slow death of one of his adversaries, an upstanding white hero of course. Frayling mentions that when the film was released on video in 1992 some of the racist and sadistic dialogue was cut, but all this was restored in the more recent DVD version.

This 1932 film is not being recommended as one of the double bills, but it has been mentioned because it was to influence the reappearance of Fu Manchu in the 1960s English cinema. The first of these revivals was The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) which was directed by Don Sharp for Tower Films with Christopher Lee as the Chinese master criminal. This is the first of the recommended double bill. Now it has to be said at once that this cannot by any means be described as a great movie — Raymond Durgnat did not think much of it — and one may wonder why it is being recommended, especially, as has been mentioned, as it is certainly guilty of orientalism and its racist implications. Nevertheless the film is being suggested for several reasons.

The first because it is a good example of orientalism in mid twentieth century cinema and so can be viewed in the context of other orientalist examples such as Dr No (1962) and Terror of the Tongs (1961). In fact this latter film had Christopher Lee playing a gangland Tong leader in Hong Kong who was very much the precursor of the Fu Manchu of the later Tower films. There is a long discussion of these films in Frayling’s book (at 317-327) and his section on The Face of Fu Manchu is worth investigating because of the interviews with the actors involved and how they felt about the inherent racism. Myrna Loy had played Fu Manchu’s daughter in the 1932 film but in the 1965 movie the part is actually played by a Chinese actor Tsai Chin. In the interview with Frayling she amusingly points out that at least Loy was allowed not just to be sadistic but also a nymphomaniac “which”, she said, “I find infinitely more interesting” (at 322). She was, all the same, allowed to be sadistic in contrast to her father in the film who might have been ruthless but did not seemingly enjoy drowning people and massacring thousands (just a necessity). However she also regretted her role saying that “I let my race down” (at 321).

Of course this should be enough to damn the film, but there is a second reason why the film should be viewed. This is because it can be seen as belonging to an important part of English cinema history, namely the era of Hammer films. The Fu Manchu series (there were five in total, but only the first two are worth watching) are not, it must be said, Hammer films but in substance they are since Don Sharp and Christopher Lee were stalwarts of this company. What Raymond Durgnat calls the Gothic Revival in his work on English cinema (A Mirror for England, Faber, 1970) was not begun by Hammer; filmsimages-3 such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and Sidney Hayer’s Circus of Horrors (1960) are central to this revival as are some earlier non-Hammer movies. However Hammer became famous for its series of remakes of 1930’s Hollywood Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf films in which the leading stars were Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. What was particularly notable about these works were their rich Technicolor imagery, yet, as Durgnat points out, they were also morally “rather more ambivalent than critics realized being at once Sadistic and tragic” (ibid, at 224).

It is this sadism which is particularly noticeable. One scene in The Face of Fu Manchu sees a Fu Manchu traitorous henchwomen thrust into a drowning chamber — to the disappointment of the daughter who was hoping to torture her — and this adds a dark tone to an otherwise hokum movie plot. As indeed does the massacre of a whole village by Fu Manchu using a deadly poison which he hopes will make him dominus mundi (a recurring theme in cinema that no doubt links it to Digest 14.2.9). This might not seem like a good reason for recommending the film, but there is a very long relationship between De Sade and cinema (see Georges De Coulteray, Le sadisme au cinéma, Terrain Vague, 1964). Or, as Durgnat put it, the shadow of the Divine Marquis “has always lain long and heavily over popular entertainment, and the commercial cinema has never aspired to prove an exception” (Eros in the Cinema, Calder & Boyars, 1966, at 41). Those seriously interested in popular culture and English cinema — and of course orientalism — might find The Face of Fu Manchu a useful example from this period: a mixture of “physical atrocity interacting with moral irony” as Durgnat put it (ibid, at 226).

Indeed Durgnat foresaw the orientalist aspect of popular cinema long before Sir Christopher Fraying. Writing in 1969 (in which year Frayling was becoming a leading expert on Italian Westerns), Durgnat noted that China had replaced Russia as the imagesnumber one threat: “The Yellow Peril rides again”. We are, he continued, “so used to sly oriental masterminds seeking world domination that we hardly realise how pathological the projection is.” Referring to the Mask of Fu Manchu, he notes some of the racist dialogue and wryly observes that the “Chinese would have rather more reason to make pulp thrillers about Western masterminds who invent radioactive fallout, and not only preach genocide but virtually achieve it” (Spies and Ideologies, in Cinema, Number 2, March 1969, 5, at 11).

A third reason for recommending the film is that Don Sharp was an important English film director who, along with Terence Fisher, was responsible for some of the better Hammer films. Neither director had the status of the great Michael Powell, but they brought to the Gothic Revival a very rich visual sense together with some imaginative photography and editing. In his earlier film for Hammer, Kiss of the Vampire (1963), Sharp created some memorable Gothic scenes and even if the film was made on shoestring budget — actually some of the bats are literally on shoestrings — he still managed to lift this vampire movie out of the mundane with his visual sense even if it is not as rich as Terence Fisher’s (on which see Brides of Dracula (1960). Raymond Durgnat says of Sharp that while “no mean stylist” he “doesn’t believe in the supernatural” and thus a “cold wind tearing autumn leaves remains simply a cold wind tearing autumn leaves” (ibid, at 228). It is perhaps true that a film like Fisher’s The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) does use colour to emphasise a moral — or more precisely immoral — richness, but Sharp’s filming of the party scene in Kiss remains memorable. It mixes sumptuousness (the huge bowl of Champagne bottles and the red mask) with a vicious nastiness of its central vampire characters. The invocation of the bats by the severe vampire hunter (“vampirism versus puritanism” says Durgnat) certainly has a supernatural element which perhaps makes Durgant’s comment a little too severe.

The other film in this double bill is a genuinely weird Hollywood production that defies classification, save perhaps under the headings ‘orientalist’ and ‘cult’. It was originally called Evils of Chinatown, but later became known as Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962) to bring it in line with the book by Thomas de Quincey upon which the film is loosely (very loosely) based (and is the title of the DVD version). It was directed by Albert Zugsmith who was better known as a producer (rather than director) of B feature films, images-4one of his directors being the King of the B Feature, Roger Corman (the subject of a later blog). As Durgnat said, “Evils of Chinatown is a very different specimen of Chinoiserie” and notes how one of the BFI writers described it as a “crude piece of claptrap that has to be seen to be believed”. The “anonymous hack”, as Durgnat described him, went on to say that “it is a hotchpotch of Chinatown melodrama (circa 1920 vintage), with rival Tongs, starved girls, captives in cages, secret panels, sliding doors, sewer escape routes, opium dens and nightmares” (Cinema, op.cit, at 12).

Quite so — and this is what makes it so interesting. In saying this, one is not attempting to excuse the orientalist and racist overtones, yet, as “in a dream, slaves and the condemned pass from one basement to another on an underground téléférique of slung cages” (Cinema, op.cit, at 13) while an unforgettable Vincent Price roams “in search of a friend in distress through turn-of-the-century Chinatown”. His “path repeatedly crosses that of the mastermind who controls the white slave trade in young Chinese brides.” In addition, the film has “a motherly dwarf and a bald girl dancer; mazes of doorways and hidden streets; [and] the unexplained participation of a white horse in a battle between rival tongs” (Sexual Alienation in the Cinema, Studio Vista, 1972, at 61)). Durgnat might also have added that there is an extraordinary dream-like sequence in slow motion silence as the Vincent Price character drifts through the streets and passages on an opium den high. Echoing William Burroughs — “Along canals of terminal sewage” (ibid, at 33) — our hero and the mastermind are finally swept to their deaths along an underground sewer.

The influence of this film on the Italian director Federico Fellini is unmistakable, as indeed Durgnat recognises when he discusses Evils almost immediately after devoting many pages to Fellini-Satyricon (1969) (Sexual Alienation, chap 1). The latter film may not have quite the same narrative, time or place, but the dreamlike wanderings through the streets and the exotic, if not grotesque, characters met on the way endow the two films with a similar spirit and imagery. There is perhaps less of De Sade in the Fellini film, which is why it attracted many fewer cuts, but Evils experienced a very hard time (“We do not like this film…”). Both Durgnat and Frayling express a certain surprise given that The Face of Fu Manchu was passed with its almost whipping and drowning sequences, similar sequences in Evils having been cut. There is something strange, exotic and perverse in Evils that is not of course present in Fu Manchu whose plot on the whole is a bit daft and unsophisticated. Evils is more threatening because of its sexual innuendo, sadism, white slavery and bald-headed women, all contextualised within an eerie opium-soaked journey punctuated with surreal encounters. The British censors of the time seemed, however, completely unconcerned by the racism; it is sex — particularly of a kind that makes the censors feel uncomfortable — and the violence that worried them. Today it would be the opposite if censorship were still in force in the way it was in the 1960s. Extreme and graphic violence seems the norm in many films, and sex worries no one; but racism and orientalism are another matter. Fu Manchu, as many have pointed out, could not be made today, and while Evils ought equally to be left in the past given its portrayal of the Chinese it could probably not be made today because few film-makers have the kind idiosyncratic vision that some of the Hollywood B feature directors and writers once had. Fellini was of course an exception, but sadly, he is long gone.

Neither film being proposed in this blog are ‘great’ movies, certainly not Fu Manchu. But they are being proposed because they are interesting in a number of different ways. They provide an insight into 1960s cinema both in its good and not so good aspects; the work of directors like Don Sharp and others at Hammer deserve recognition because they have left their mark not just on the Gothic Revival but also on what were then considered exotic adventure and thriller films. We shall see in a future blog that the Hammer horror movies were to influence both American and Italian cinema (indeed Evils surely influenced Fellini). The two proposed films are of interest for the not so good reason that they are classic examples of orientalism in popular culture. It does no harm for comparative lawyers to reflect on this issue and while Fu Manchu is hardly likely to lead to any improvement in the intellectual output of comparatists, it ought to show just how ingrained orientalism has been in the Western mentality. The two films have, in addition, provided an excellent opportunity to examine and reflect on the work of the late Raymond Durgnat. He may not have had a very high opinion of The Face of Fu Manchu itself but for him these films were central to his vision of what cinema was about. He would probably have said that there is one further reason for proposing Evils of Chinatown (Confessions of an Opium Eater): it really does need to be seen to be believed. He described it as a true fleur du mal.

Posted by Professor Geoffrey Samuel (Professor of Comparative law, Kent)

Note: Previous posts featured movies such as The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), The Warlord (1965), Out of the Past (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Kiss me deadly (1955) and The Killers (1964), Imitation of Life (1958) and Blow-Up (1966)

Future posts are likely to discuss following movies: Man of the West (1958), A History of Violence (2005),  Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and Voyage Surprise (1947).