Monday, 2 December 2013

The Insidious Doctor Fu Manchu

Director: Andrew Coats
Writer: Andrew Coats
Producers: Hilary Evans, Vicky Konieczny
Cast: Steven Wren, James Bryce, Kulu
Country: UK
Year of release: 1999
Reviewed from: screener VHS

Fu Manchu was once a stock character of literature and, to some extent, cinema. Boris Karloff played the oriental mastermind and so did Christopher Lee, but in recent decades he has faded from sight. Scheming oriental masterminds determined to enslave the white race are not exactly politically correct. The last Fu Manchu feature was a Peter Sellers spoof in 1980 (directed by Piers Haggard). Since then there has been a Spanish comedy short in 1990 and this unjustifiably obscure gem.

Evocatively shot in black and white by cinematographer Martin Radich and featuring smashing Edwardian set design by Radich, producer Konieczny, Tom Gauld (who now draws comics) and Martin Sorensen, The Insidious Doctor Fu Manchu is both a loving homage to - and a cruel satire on - the novels of Sax Rohmer.

Sub-Holmesian Commissioner Nayland Smith (a terrific performance from Steven Wren), with his Watson-lite assistant Dr Petrie (James Bryce: Cry for Bobo) in tow, is on the trail of Fu Manchu, evil megalomaniac leader of the oriental cult known as Si-Fan. Only three other men, besides Smith, know the identity of Fu Manchu. One by one, Sir Crichton Davey (Jimmy Barbour), Sir Lionel Barton (Alan Jefferies) and Sir Gregory Hale (Michael Coats) are found dead by the duo. Nayland Smith concocts outlandish - but not silly - explanations for each death and tracks the culprit down to Limehouse.

Intercut with these scenes are meetings between three Whitehall mandarins (John Shedden - who was in The Mad Death and an episode of Z Cars - Alex Purves and John Somerville), discussing what they can do about Nayland Smith who, we gradually see, is in fact a paranoid racist. “It’s not just the Chinese,” he tells Petrie at one point. “It’s the Arabs, Gypsies, Negroes and Jews.” ‘Fu Manchu’ himself (Kulu) and his daughter (Linda Wan) are the innocent proprietors of a Limehouse laundry, represented by a magical set full of billowing white banners emblazoned with Chinese characters.

Where Andrew Coats’ script works so brilliantly is that he knows Sax Rohmer’s work and quotes liberally - and directly - from it, not least in Petrie’s narration. The film does not spoof, parody or lampoon Nayland Smith but cleverly hangs him by his own petard. It’s a marvellous conceit which is brilliantly carried out. Which leaves me puzzled as to why this short is not better known. There are a handful of references on the web but no actual reviews or discussion. Let me change that now!

Andrew Coats now mostly works with community groups, making short films with young people. His only other credit as director seems to be his graduation film, which I believe was called Twelve. His collaborator Martin Radich actually won a BAFTA the year that this was made for a short documentary/drama, In the Memory of Dorothy Bennett. His other films include Such is Life, Sara, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Eric Redrobe.

Steven Wren has worked on stage in productions of Little Shop of Horrors, The Beggar’s Opera etc, was a baddie in an episode of Taggart, does voice-overs for BBC Scotland and is also a singer and choreographer. Much as I would like it to be the same guy, I suspect the 1st AD on Project: Shadowchaser 3 was a different Steven Wren - but you never know.

The Insidious Doctor Fu Manchu, meanwhile remains one of my favourite ever short films.

MJS rating: A+
review originally posted 10th May 2006

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