Artist and Filmmaker Eelyn Lee talks about her short film ‘Casting Fu Manchu’ commissioned by Chinese Arts Now

A racialised term coined over a century ago, the impact of the term ‘Yellow Peril’ has been a damaging one; English novelist Sax Rohmer’s creation of villain Dr Fu Manchu in the 20th century further playing into the fear of the supposed existential threat imposed by East Asian nations on the West – this perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Exploring this further within her short film Casting Fu Manchu, a digital commission supported by organisation Chinese Arts Now; artist and filmmaker Eelyn Lee tells us more about deconstructing the fictional character – highlighting the inequalities faced by actors of East and Southeast Asian heritage, working with casting director Nicci Topping to cast the film and the process of socially distanced filming.

Hi Eelyn, Your film Casting Fu Manchu will be released on 1st December. How are you feeling ahead of the release? 

I’m really excited to be launching this film into the world as it explores some important issues that are rarely voiced in the media. The film was conceived during the first lockdown here in the UK, so for it to be premiering during the second national lockdown is quite pertinent. Casting Fu Manchu is a response to the spike in racist attacks against East and Southeast Asians during the pandemic. And although the film was made in collaboration with eleven actors, all the work was done remotely. 

Casting Fu Manchu explores ‘Yellow Peril’, a harmful term coined over a century ago. How have you found exploring this pertinent issue within your work?

Yellow Peril is a racialised term coined in the late 1800’s to capture the existential fear, held by white nations, of Asians taking over the western world. In 1912, the English novelist Sax Rohmer created the genius, Chinese villain, Dr Fu Manchu,  ‘yellow peril incarnate in one man’*. Fu Manchu was such a popular character he appeared in numerous books, films, comics and TV series for over 90 years, inspiring other fictional supervillains such as Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless and Marvel’s The Mandarin. Despite his popularity, Fu Manchu has only ever been played by white men, so when exploring yellow peril through the character you’re also dealing with the practice of yellow face.  Like the practice of black face, yellow face is highly offensive and shocking when you witness it, but when you begin to unpack it, it’s important to look at Whiteness and the structures of inequalities it has created. In the film we explore both the personal experiences of actors of East and Southeast Asian heritage and the structures of inequality in which we are all working.

The creation of the film has seen you work with casting director Nicci Topping. The process of inviting actors of East and South East Asian heritage to send tapes of themselves auditioning for the role of Fu Manchu. What did this part of the process involve and how did you find the process?

I worked with casting director Nicci Topping to put out a call to actors of East and Southeast Asian heritage to send us self tapes of them playing their versions of Fu Manchu. We sent the actors script sides as usual – extracts from old Fu Manchu films – and asked them to subvert the character in any way they liked. Actors also filmed their responses to a set of interview questions about their take on the character and their experiences of working in the industry. We made it clear from the outset that the tapes would form the basis of the film, and we received over 50 amazing submissions. It was such a hard job to choose a selection because the range of creative interpretations was really impressive and the quality of the acting often superb. There’s so much Asian talent out there. And so much new talent coming out of drama schools. The casting call encouraged young, old, male, female and non-binary actors to submit. I was particularly interested to discover how younger actors would respond to the character of Fu Manchu as many people under the age of 45 have never heard of him. When you watch the film you won’t be disappointed!

Working with Nicci Topping was a great experience as she’s one of the few casting directors of colour in the UK and based in the north like myself. Nicci recently convened an online panel to speak about the lack of roles available for East and Southeast Asian actors, so it’s a subject she’s particularly engaged with. 

The film forms part of Chinese Arts Now’s Digital commissions initiative. What does it mean to have your work supported by them?

It’s the first time I’ve been commissioned by an arts organisation which centres diasporic Chinese artists. To be making this particular piece of work with their support is important as there is a shared understanding of the issues I’m exploring. Chinese Arts Now are amplifying Chinese artist’s voices which is so important as many other arts institutions position work through a white gaze. We need more Black and Asian curators and producers to be disrupting these norms and framing work in new ways.

How have you found the process of socially distant filmmaking? 

My practice is a collaborative one so it was initially daunting to think about how to work within lockdown rules. These constraints however became the key to the project. The actors’ self tapes were the starting points for the editing process, and as I didn’t know what to expect from the submissions, I had to remain open to working with whatever material was presented.  So the film very much came together in the edit as they say! As I worked with the actors’ footage it became clear that there was so much rich material – enough for a 45-minute film. It’s always exciting to let the material shape the form.

What can viewers expect from the film?

The film will be available to watch online from midday on 1st Dec on the Chinese Arts Now website. Later that day at 7pm we are inviting people to watch the film together over Zoom. With cinemas closed, we are keen to create a shared viewing experience so we hope that people will choose to view the film collectively.  After the screening, Jodie Gilliam from Chinese Arts Now will host a panel discussion with myself and two of the actors from the film, Daniel York Loh and Elisabeth Gunawan. We’ll be talking about our experiences of making the film and some of the themes explored.  Audience members will be invited to join the conversation through a live Q&A.

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

Casting Fu Manchu will be available online to stream from Tuesday 1st until Thursday 31st December 2020. To find out more about the film, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop