The Serpent

The Serpent ★★★

The Serpent very much plays out like what it is: a by-the-numbers made-for-TV limited series fictionalizing the true-crime drama of serial killer Charles Sobhraj. As a retelling of the poisoning, drowning, burning, and dispatching of young backpackers who had been lured off the hippie trail to stay at Sobhraj’s fairly opulent Bangkok home, the series is certainly adequate. Similarly, the investigative twists and turns of the parallel plot-line involving Dutch diplomat turned maverick detective Herman Knippenberg is naturally intriguing—gripping strictly by default of its salacious source material.

Though far from top tier art / storytelling, I found myself quite content nonetheless. The production quality is definitely spotty and aesthetically lacking, but with some nifty 16mm shots of tuk-tuks zigzagging backpacker zones like Khao San Rd., and its crisp period costumes, it feels lived-in, grainy, and sweaty enough to conjure up the tropical malaise and lush sensibilities of its equatorial locations.

This hyper-realized sense of its exotic settings is the real redeemer. Between its coconuts and khlongs, monsoons and malaria, pulverized pills and Patpong sex shows, 70s bell-bottoms and starched-collared dress shirts, Pattaya beach getaways and Dal Lake boat rides, Chunking Mansion gem negotiations and Kathmandu monastery enlistments, tours of the Reclining Buddha and cliff-jumping at Chang Mai waterfalls, The Serpent is very specifically entrenched in the sweltering topographies of Southeast Asia.

For me, the nostalgic seduction of these sultry particulars alone (having spent ample time in Thailand / Nepal / India / Hong Kong) was more than enough to remain steadily enraptured, even if I knew The Serpent was a bit melodramatic in its delivery and tonally sleazy too: as slippery and elusive in terms of its intentions and thematic depth as its vaguely sketched lead character.

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