Saturday, January 7, 2012
YEAR 1931: FAH LO SUEE
I've assigned the character of Fah Lo Suee to her first named appearance in 1931's DAUGHTER OF FU MANCHU, but it's something of a judgment call, since the character-- albeit unnamed-- had appeared in 1917, in a series of stories novelized as THE HAND OF FU MANCHU.
One justification for doing so, though, is the question: "If Sax Rohmer had not written any more than the first three Fu Manchu books, would anyone even remember that he had a daughter?" My verdict is no. The most noteworthy female in HAND is a woman named Zarmi. Zarmi dominates the first half of the book and is one of the very few Rohmer females who takes literal violent action rather than manipulating subordinates (she stabs a cop to escape capture). Early in the book, however, Nayland Smith had told his confidante Petrie a strange story about a mythical Asian woman who is expected to lead the East against the West; a woman who is eternally young due to many reincarnations (sounding not a little like Haggard's SHE). Several chapters later Petrie stumbles across a gorgeous veiled woman and eventually learns that she is Fu's daughter. Fu plans to use his captivating child to rally various Eastern factions to his banner, but Nayland Smith's interference foils the plot and Fu never seems inclined to revive the scheme in subsequent outings. The woman who would later be named Fah Lo Suee is little more than a pawn, whom Rohmer never troubles to characterize.
HAND actually ends suggesting that both Fu and his unnamed daughter die at the end, and for a little over 20 years, they remained dead, at least on paper, while Rohmer worked on other books, some of which pursued "femme formidable" themes like 1920's GREEN EYES OF BAST and 1929's EMPEROR OF AMERICA. It's been suggested that none of the intervening books sold that well, which may have motivated Rohmer's return to his best-known character. In addition, Hollywood had revived Fu as well: two silent Fu-films appeared in 1923 and 1924, and Paramount then produced an early talkie in 1929, with Warner Oland as Fu. It may well be that when Rohmer wrote DAUGHTER, he hoped that Hollywood would immediately novelize it. Following a second Oland Fu Manchu film in 1930, Paramount apparently availed itself of the basic idea of Rohmer's new novel-- that the Chinese mastermind had a daughter-- but kept nothing else.
In the novel by Rohmer, Fu Manchu and Fah Lo Suee have escaped death, but Fu is vaguely incapacitated. Fah Lo Suee seizes her chance to move up in the ranks of the Si-Fan, commanding its thugs to commit various murderous errands for her. She also takes an erotic interest in young narrator-character Shan Greville. Like her father she seems to have a limited telepathic ability, and knows how to apply an array of drugs able to sap men of their will to resist. Both in DAUGHTER and in the subsequent novel MASK OF FU MANCHU, Fah uses drugs to make Greville think that he loves her; it's loosely implied that he may have sex with her as well, though other drugs cause him to forget the experience. At novel's end Fu Manchu re-asserts control, but for the rest of the series Fah Lo Suee continues to find ways to stymie or inconvenience her mastermind father.
In DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, Fu Manchu dies early in the story, and his daughter-- named Ling Moy in this incarnation-- sets out to kill the men she holds responsible for her dad's death. However, the film emphasizes romance over action, as she falls in love with one of the supposedly guilty Caucasians and can't bear to kill him at first, though she has no problem setting other deaths into motion. Anna May Wong put across a decent performance with the cheapjack material, and there's one interesting moment in which Ling Moy comes up with a new twist on the "Chinese water torture," using acid in place of water. But overall the first filmic apperance of "Fah Lo Suee" is unmemorable.
In contrast to Wong's fainting performance, in 1932 MGM gave filmgoers a very different interpretation of Fu Manchu's daughter, even if her name was slightly altered to "Fah Lo See." Without touching on the other delights of this over-the-top adventure (with the immortal Boris Karloff as Fu), MASK's script takes Rohmer's idea of a woman enslaving a man through drugs and ratchets up the intensity, having her put the Caucasian hunk she desires through torture devised to help break his will. In one scene it's strongly implied that she could have had her way with her studly victim after the torture. I'd speculate that this might be the first time a cinematic female came close to commiting the rape of a man. Even the Marquis de Sade never "went there," to the best of my recollection. This version of Fah Lo Suee is more out-of-control than Rohmer's character, but remains the best cinematic interpretation thus far.