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The Serpent (2021)

Gemma Blackwood
Published: 5 October 2021

Abstract: The Netflix/BBC eight-part limited true crime series The Serpent (2021) provides a commentary on the impact of the tourist industry in South-East Asia in the 1970s. The series portrays the story of French serial killer Charles Sobhraj (played by Tahar Rahim)—a psychopathic international con artist of Vietnamese-Indian descent—who regularly targeted Western travellers, especially the long-term wanderers of the legendary “Hippie Trail” (or the “Overland”), running between eastern Europe and Asia. The series, which was filmed on location in Thailand—in Bangkok and the Thai town of Hua Hin—is set in a range of travel destinations along the route of the Hippie Trail, as the narrative follows the many crimes of Sobhraj. Cities such as Kathmandu, Goa, Varanasi, Hong Kong, and Kabul are featured on the show. The series is loosely based upon Australian writers Richard Neville and Julie Clarke’s true crime biography The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj (1979). Another true crime text by Thomas Thompson called Serpentine: Charles Sobhraj’s Reign of Terror from Europe to South Asia (also published in 1979) is a second reference. The show portrays the disappearance and murders of many young victims at the hands of Sobhraj. Certainly, Sobhraj is represented as a monstrous figure, but what about the business of tourism itself? Arguably, in its reflective examination of twentieth-century travel, the series also poses the hedonism of tourism as monstrous. Here, attention is drawn to Western privilege and a neo-orientalist gaze that presented Asia as an exotic playground for its visitors. The television series focuses on Sobhraj, his French-Canadian girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (played by Jenna Coleman), and the glamourous life they lead in Bangkok. The fashionable couple’s operation presents Sobhraj as a legitimate gem dealer: outwardly, they seem to embody the epitome of fun and glamour, as well as the cross-cultural sophistication of the international jet set. In reality, they drug and then steal from tourists who believe their story. Sobhraj uses stolen passports and cash to travel internationally and acquire more gems. Then, with an accomplice called Ajay Chowdhury (played by Amesh Adireweera), Sobhraj murders his victims if he thinks they could expose his fraud. Often depicted as humourless and seething with anger, the Sobhraj of the series often wears dark aviator sunglasses, a detail that enhances the sense of his impenetrability. One of the first crimes featured in The Serpent is the double-murder of an innocent Dutch couple. The murders lead to an investigation by Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (played by Billy Howle), wanting to provide closure for the families of the victims. Knippenberg enlists neighbours to go undercover at Sobhraj’s home to collect evidence. This exposes Sobhraj’s crimes, so he flees the country with Marie-Andrée and Ajay. While they were apprehended, Sobhraj would be later given pardon from a prison in India: he would only received a life sentence for murder when he is arrested in Nepal in 2003. His ability to evade punishment—and inability to admit to and atone for his crimes—become features of his monstrosity in the television series. Clearly, Sobhraj is represented as the “serpent” of this drama, a metaphor regularly reinforced both textually and visually across the length of the series. As an example, the opening credit sequence for the series coalesces shots of vintage film in Asia—including hitchhiking backpackers, VW Kombi vans, swimming pools, religious tourist sites, corrupt Asian police forces—against an animated map of central and South-East Asia and the Hippie Trail. The map is encased by the giant, slithering tail of some monstrous, reptilian creature. Situating the geographic context of the narrative, the serpentine monster appears to be rising out of continental Asia itself, figuratively stalking and then entrapping the tourists and travellers who move along its route. So, what of the other readings about the monstrosity of the tourism industry that appears on the show? The Hippie Trail was arguably a site—a serpentine cross-continental thoroughfare—of Western excess. The Hippie Trail emerged as the result of the ease of travel across continental Europe and Asia. It was an extension of a countercultural movement that first emerged in the United States in the mid 1960s. Agnieszka Sobocinska has suggested that the travellers of the Hippie Trail were motivated by “widespread dissatisfaction with the perceived conservatism of Western society and its conventions”, and that it was characterised by “youth, rebellion, self-expression and the performance of personal freedom” (par. 8). The Trail appealed to a particular subcultural group who wanted to differentiate themselves from other travellers. Culturally, the Hippie Trail has become a historical site of enduring fascination, written about in popular histories and Western travel narratives, such as A Season in Heaven: True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu (Tomory 1998), Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India (MacLean 2007), The Hippie Trail: A History (Gemie and Ireland 2017), and The Hippie Trail: After Europe, Turn Left (Kreamer 2019). Despite these positive memoirs, the route also has a reputation for being destructive and even neo-imperialist: it irrevocably altered the politics of these Asian regions, especially as crowds of Western visitors would party at its cities along the way. In The Serpent, while the crimes take place on its route, on face value the Hippie Trail still appears to be romanticised and nostalgically re-imagined, especially as it represents a stark difference from our contemporary world with its heavily-policed international borders. Indeed, the travellers seem even freer from the perspective of 2021,...
Keywords: neo / Europe and Asia / Kathmandu / narrative / tourist / Sobhraj / Western travellers / true

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