Category Archives: sax rohmer
Iron Man Three ~ This movie is not what you think it is. The trailers give you something that is compelling, but it’s not the film, not really. We’re not talking about false advertising, no, what you see in the previews you get in the movie, it’s just Iron Man 3 (or Iron Man Three as it’s actually called in the credits) is a different kind of superhero film, hell, it’s a different kind of film, period.
Now I’ve already talked about that fact and more about director Shane Black’s approach to Iron Man Three in my spoiler-free review over at Biff Bam Pop! some months back (read it here). But what I’m going to talk about here is very spoiler special heavy. It’s the big secret of Iron Man Three, we’re going to talk about the Mandarin. Spoilers away, be warned.
Now this is not new territory for me either, I talked about the Mandarin before in my article about the forgotten foes of Iron Man, but this will be very specific to bringing Mandy to the big screen, and in the year 2013, that is not an easy job. Let’s face it, the Mandarin is a piece of history, and a rather nasty piece of history, both outdated and racist.
In the comics, the Mandarin is an Asian villain in the tradition of other such masterminds like Sax Rohmer’s classic, but racist stereotype, Fu Manchu. He was created in an age when in the comics every hero fought against the Red Menace, the Communist threat, and yes, the Yellow Peril. We as a nation were recovering from the Korean War, entering into the Viet Nam War, and in the midst of a deadly game of mutually assured destruction in the Cold War. The Asian race was a direct threat.
The Mandarin was a schemer, a manipulator, a mastermind. He worked behind the scenes, he controlled multiple villains, and sought to overthrow not only America, but our entire way of life. But that was the 1960s, and it was racist. That crap don’t play now, and quite honestly the Mandarin, although Iron Man’s archenemy from early on, has not weathered the storm, one of political correctness, well after all these years.
Enter the phenomenon that is the Robert Downey Jr. and the Marvel Cinematic Universe it started. After two Iron Man movies, and a billion dollar blockbuster Avengers film, where do you go? Is it time for Iron Man to finally face his greatest foe on screen? Yes, but in our politically correct world, with a mainstream audience who may or may not have a background in the comics source material, how do you pull it off.
Easy answer? You lie, you dazzle them with trickery. You get your cake, and you eat it too. Sir Ben Kingsley, first, is inspired casting for the villain. And in the previews, the image he gives us is both Marvel Comics Mandarin and Middle Eastern terrorist pimp daddy, an updating to be awed. This new Mandarin is one who both strikes by surprise like the 9/11 bombers, and announces his attacks like the monsters who have beheaded hostages on video on the internet.
An early interview before the film came out asked if Sir Ben had done any research on the Mandarin character, and he said that he had not, and that he did not intend to. This sent fanboys into a frenzy. The fact is that Sir Ben didn’t need to. His character was not really the Mandarin – in fact, the whole concept, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was a fake, a deception, a farce.
The Mandarin didn’t exist, he was just an actor, a puppet of the real villain. Sir Ben never needed to know anything about the source material, his character was a construct, and one lovingly performed with the proper fierceness, and comedic flair once revealed (loved the Ringo Starr-esque affectation). Kingsley’s performance was golden, in so many ways, he was menacing, and ridiculous, and done right. That’s right, I said, ‘done right.’
There were fanboys who fumed about this as well, but the truth is – it was impossible to transfer the comics character to the screen in our world of political correctness. Sorry, folks who just don’t get it, but wake up, the Mandarin is a racist stereotype. And also be aware, there are folks who think the villain as he appears in the movie is also a racist stereotype, one of our current Middle Eastern terrorist enemies.
And therein lies the problem, as much good will as Iron Man, the Avengers, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have engendered with mainstream audiences, it would all fall apart tragically if the Mandarin were portrayed as a sneering Asian madman bent on world domination. In my opinion Iron Man Three does it right, giving us the best of both worlds.
Here is just a sampling of some of the movies being featured this month for “Asian Images in Film” on TCM.
Mr. Wu ~ This is a silent 1927 vehicle for Lon Chaney in which he plays two roles, the title one, old Wu and young Wu. Surrounded by Asian extras, Chaney and Louise Dresser, as his daughter, are Americans playing Chinese aristocrats. Legend has it that Chaney was so convincing that he rode buses and wandered Chinatown while in this make-up unnoticed. As convincing as the make-up may have been however, in the presence of true Asians, the Americans are revealed as just that – whites in yellow face. Ah, simpler minds in simpler times perhaps?
When the daughter of a powerful Mandarin is seduced and abandoned by a wealthy Britisher, Mr. Wu, the Mandarin, takes his revenge. The sets are beautiful and elaborate, even having as much a German film influence, or at least as much as the American black and white silent film industry would allow at the time. The music relays the story as much as the actions and the words, a perfect blending.
The Oriental lettering of the title cards also lends to the film’s uniqueness. Also the passage of time via caption cards does contrive the story a bit, but in the time and the place there was no other way to do it, I suppose, Hollywood not being as slick as it is today. However the emotion and expression performed by Renee Adoree and Holmes Herbert confirm them as masters of the silent field right along with Chaney. Acting without words and conveying feeling perfectly is not an art I doubt that Ben Affleck or Jennifer Lopez or any star of our day could pull off easily, if at all.
The tension of the tea party is wonderfully Hitchcockian before his time and well portrayed. While there is precious little Chaney in this Chaney starrer, when he’s onscreen, he dominates. As is his strong suit, when he gets angry, he is positively frightening. Wu’s horrible revenge is right out of a Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel, and fitting for the characters and the story. Despite my misgivings above this is one of my favorite Chaney flicks and a must see for Chaney fans. Brilliant.
Mr. Wong in Chinatown ~ This is the third of four films in which Boris Karloff plays the San Franciscan amateur detective. It’s a role that shows off Karloff’s charm and elegance, qualities not often revealed in his horror parts. The character of James Lee Wong was created for Collier’s Magazine in 1934 by Hugh Wiley.
Mr. Wong went on to star in twelve short stories, six feature films (two of which were remade as Charlie Chan flicks) and a handful of comic books. This one is one of the best, with Karloff playing against Grant Withers as the hard-nosed detective and Marjorie Reynolds as the plucky girl reporter. It’s fun and mystery in the 1930s pulp flavor for everyone.
Daughter of Shanghai ~ Starring the incomparable Anna May Wong in one of her heroic lead roles. Also look for a very young Anthony Quinn, as well as Buster Crabbe in a rare bad guy role. Anna May’s acting and dancing are hypnotic in this B-thriller about smugglers of human cargo. Recommended.
Daughter of the Dragon ~ Once again Anna May Wong is in the spotlight in this early cinematic outing for the insidious Fu Manchu. This film is notable as one of the first featuring an Asian actress playing Asian in a lead role, in this case the title role, the equally insidious daughter of Fu Manchu. Acting against his later known type as Charlie Chan, Warner Oland is Fu Manchu here (his third time in the role), and extra props go to legendary Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa in his role as one of Scotland Yard’s Chinese detectives. The story, based on Sax Rohmer’s “Daughter of Fu Manchu,” is weak but the performances more than make up for it in this often overlooked B-picture.
The Mask of Fu Manchu ~ Speaking of Fu Manchu, this is probably the flick most people think of when they think of this legendary Asian villain, this time played by horror king Boris Karloff. In my opinion, Karloff’s portrayal is the best in cinema of this sinister villain, who I might add was author Rohmer’s first choice. It’s perfect, the ultimate movie monster playing the premier super-villain, it just doesn’t get better than this.
The rest of the cast is flawless as well. Andy Hardy future dad Lewis Stone is perpetual Fu protagonist Nayland Smith, the future Durango Kid and cowboy superstar Charles Starrett plays leading man action hero, and in perhaps her most unforgettable (and frightening) role (and yes, I’m counting Nora Charles) Myrna Loy as the daughter of Fu Manchu.
The film, based on Sax Rohmer’s classic of the same name, has the heroes and villains racing to find the tomb of Genghis Khan, which contains a mask and other relics that shall bestow ultimate power on the mad villain. All of the trappings and dynamic qualities of the pulps and the early serials are here, but stepped up to the next level. This fantastic adventure is highly recommended.