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Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen


‘…the updating of Chan’s character is as baffling as the shonky back projection…’

Yikes! With the current vogue for eccentric detectives, let’s take a look back at a time when the very notion was out of fashion; Peter Ustinov had kick-started his own franchise as Hercules Poirot, and seemed to fancy more sleuthing action by taking on the role of Charlie Chan. Ustinov was no more Chinese than he was Belgian, and even in 1980, having all the best non-white roles played by white people was already beginning to be understood to have negative racial associations.

Clive Donner’s film seems intended to revive a franchise, but failed abjectly; the later Pink Panther movies are probably the best point of comparison. Charlie Chan (Ustinov) is presented as a cinematic detective, but also a sleuth in real life; his number one son is replaced by his number one grandson (Battlestar Galactica’s Richard Hatch) for this whodunit. Imagining that guessing the killer wasn’t enough for a 90 minute narrative, we also have a super-villain in the form of the Dragon Queen, played by Angie Dickinson. She bears a grudge against Chan, and attempts to kill him, firstly with a lift full of water, then by blowing a poisoned dart at him and riding off on a horse and cart, with cop-cars in pursuit.

Because this is a very 1980 film, set in the same period, the updating of Chan’s character is as baffling as the shonky back projection at times. Presumably a writers meeting tried to work out what activities that we’d want to see Charlie Chan do. Visit some XXX adult movie theatres? Why not. Attend a disco with a live saxophone player? Elementary. Hang out with a black pimp who admires his white three-piece suit? ‘White on white, that’s all right’ they demur.

Yet Charlie Chan was clearly anticipated as a big film, with a remarkable cast including Rachel Roberts, Roddy McDowell, Brian Keith in a slapstick role, Lee Grant and even a young Michelle Pfeiffer. Having starred in this and Grease 2 at the start of her career, it’s remarkable that Pfeiffer didn’t just jack the movies in before she was 30. She’d probably rather forget that she was in this, much as I’d prefer to not to remember I saw it; a modern-day Charlie Chan movie isn’t an impossible idea to realise, but fortune cookie say, this kind of glib racial whitewashing leaves talent high and dry.


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  1. There are films I tell myself I will watch one day, but deep down I know I never will. (Most of this year’s Oscar nominees fall into this category)

    But no self-delusion here. Whether my life be long or short, it will end without my ever having watched this film……

  2. What’s with all the quality programming being featured here all of a sudden? I mean, first Bullseye! and now this.

    Don’t even know if this can be called whitewashing as it’s such a travesty in every respect. I can’t remember, but does Ustinov get hit in the balls in this? That might save it.

    • He does not, and that’s just one of the problems with this film.

      High quality programming at all times.

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