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The serial killer who murdered hippies on Southeast Asia’s “Pot Trail”
Netflix By the 1970s, when the “golden age of serial murder” hit the US with killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, another predator had begun to terrorize travelers abroad. Charles Sobhraj, who operated under a number of aliases including “Alain Gautier,” was a con who, as featured in BBC One’s The Serpent, befriended travelers on the “Pot Trail” of Southeast Asia before becoming friends drugged and murdered her and stole her passports and valuables. The Snake, which debuts on Netflix on Friday, is a true-story script series that alternates between Sobhraj’s most active years as a serial killer and the tireless investigations of a Dutch diplomat who eventually pushed him away. When the series premieres in its new streaming home, it will match other murder-related offerings such as Conversations With a Murderer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Night Stalkers, which focused on the murders of Richard Ramirez. In contrast to many of these projects, however, The Serpent seems reluctant in its own rudeness – determined to honor Sobhraj’s sacrifice as well as the aforementioned diplomat Herman Knippenberg, rather than glorify the man behind the violence. It works sometimes, but eventually gives way to the usual impulses that inevitably make these programs a contradicting clock. Charles Sobhraj was born in Saigon on April 6, 1944 during World War II. As reported in Julie Clarke’s and Richard Neville’s book In the Footsteps of the Serpent, Sobhraj’s mother gave birth to a Vietnamese shop girl named Tran Loan Phung when the Viet Minh were fighting occupation forces from Japan. The bombs shook the hospital. Sobhraj’s father, who was Indian, left the family when he was a toddler, and his mother married a lieutenant in the French Army who eventually brought the family back to France, where he adopted Sobhraj’s younger sister, but not Sobhraj himself. Bobhraj grew up stateless on. At boarding school, he was exposed to racist jokes from his white classmates. And when his mother came back to pick him up, the boy found that he could no longer speak his native language. From a young age, Sobhraj stole candy and toys for his younger siblings, and twice tried to return to the land of his birth by stowing them on a ship. At one point, his mother mistakenly told him that his father had died. When Sobhraj finally moved in with his father, things didn’t go much better. Bobhraj was fascinated by psychology and used a psychological technique called “characterology” to profile potential victims. He was known for identifying a person’s deepest desires and frustrations and offering a solution before often inviting them to his apartment as a guest. He used a range of drugs to induce disease and then care for his victims while robbing them and, in some cases, convincing them to participate in his criminal activities. After numerous attempts to escape, Sobhraj was finally imprisoned in India from 1976 to 1997 – and in 2003 he returned to Nepal, where he was arrested again and sentenced to life imprisonment. He has insisted in the past that all of his victims’ drug overdoses were accidental; Authorities meanwhile claim he killed her for fear of disclosure. The snake, whose title is derived from a popular nickname for Sobhraj, is mostly concentrated in the mid-1970s, when Sobhraj’s criminal activities expanded to include murder. His first known victim, Teresa Knowlton, was a young American woman traveling to a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. The fishermen found her body in the Gulf of Thailand, where it was initially believed to have accidentally drowned but later turned out to be bad game. (She, like another of Sobhraj’s victims, had been found in a bikini – which earned him the nickname “the bikini killer.”) Charles Sobhraj had an obsessive eye for glamor and loathed the ragged hippies that flocked to Southeast Asia . The snake uses this dynamic to its advantage and immerses its audience in the elegant world of the gem cheater – flared linen trousers! huge sunglasses! lush silk! – only to undermine that superficial beauty with a glance at the horror that underpins it all. (Translation: Get ready for a lot of digestive pyrotechnics.) BBC One’s series also mimics the Patron Reptile in shape, with a tortuous, non-linear plot. Viewers will attend the same parties over and over and learn new details from a different victim’s perspective each time. (The most effective of these rates actually belongs to Quebecois Marie-Andrée Leclerc, Sobhraj’s romantic partner and conspirator who, as we can see, was also a victim herself.) Over time, however, the device’s cleverness gives way to exhaustion. Sobhraj may have been a master con man and escape artist, but his methods, at least as seen here, are not as complex. After the first murders, we get the idea. Even so, strong performances from lead actor Tahar Rahim, who plays Sobhraj, and Jenna Coleman as Leclerc, make even the limp parts of The Serpent’s Run perfectly visible. Rahim keeps the tension under control in every scene, capturing Sobhraj’s infamous elegant-but-icy air with every dark look. Meanwhile, Coleman brings a sense of empathy to Marie-Andrée by keeping the audience at a distance to highlight her character’s complicity before finally inviting her into the terrifying inner world of her character. The other side of The Serpent’s equation is more naturally tempting: Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg and his equally brilliant then-wife Angela investigate the disappearance of two Dutch backpackers. It doesn’t take long before a game of cat and mouse takes place in which Knippenberg hunts the wrong tracks with the passports of his victims, which Sobhraj has left all over the world – and asks numerous apparently apathetic government agencies for help, which no one is ready seems to be. English actor Billy Howle – previously in Netflix’s Outlaw King and in the last Star Wars episode in which he played Rey’s father – plays Knippenberg wonderfully and sweaty as the diplomat’s obsessive hunt for Sobhraj begins to overtake his psyche. Certain elements in this series begin to rub. Despite its abundant Bangkok setting, The Serpent treats Asian women as largely available. It’s unclear if the show’s writers weren’t able to provide much backstory about Sobhraj’s Thai lover, Suda, or if they just weren’t interested – but it’s hard to ignore how little we know about her compared to the other people who Sobhraj could seduce in his web. We see little of Sobhraj’s mother. And beyond Suda and Knippenberg’s secretary – who apparently exists mostly on this series so he can bark at them to get various foreign officials on the phone – the only other Asian women present appear to be sex workers who are used to “shabbiness.” “The series also makes little effort to deal with the complex web of socio-political and psychological dynamics surrounding Sobhraj and his upbringing. (It’s worth noting that Rahim himself, despite his ability to play the character, is neither Indian nor Vietnamese, but Algerian.) The snake spends so much time unfolding its many monotonous kills that we lose the fuller story – one which is rich in thematic potential from the point of view of colonial history and occupation, especially in the context of the Vietnam War. In this context, The Serpent may have achieved the gravitas it so clearly wanted to achieve – but in its absence we are left with monstrosity. Read more at The Daily Beast. Get our top stories in your inbox every day. 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