Monday, November 07, 2005

Just what we need - "The Last Geisha." Not.

I haven’t read Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and am trying really hard not to let any preconceived prejudices shape my opinion of its merits. Likewise as regards the flashy, splashy big-studio screen adaptation coming our way in December. But the movie, at least, is already rubbing me the wrong way.

Everyone, say it together now: or-i-en-tal fan-ta-sy! (Male orientalist fantasy, to be precise...but that’s redundant.)

Yes, yes, I’m aware that “MOAG” is based on a true story, and that the geisha in question is a fully developed, fully dimensional character, not some submissive sex toy. Nevertheless, however exquisitely nuanced the book’s portrayal may have been, I really do not think that what mainstream America needs right now are images of exoticized Asian femininity arraying itself exclusively to charm men—images further enhanced by the grand style of Hollywood costume and art design. According to an article in today’s L.A. Times, the costume designer, Colleen Atwood, believed that “the subtlety of actual geisha dress wouldn’t have the right impact on film.” Fair enough. But then she’s quoted as saying:

“We were taking an art form that is a huge part of Japanese culture, but it was important to remember that we were making a movie, based on a book of fiction, written by a guy, about a geisha.”

Um, yeah...and that is exactly the problem, ma’am. You’re all perpetuating the erotic myth, and sexing it up for good measure.

Well, at least it’s an all-Asian cast. There is the tiny detail, of course, that the three leads are all played by Chinese actresses (two mainland, one Hong Kong): the ubiquitous Zhang Ziyi as geisha number one, Michelle Yeoh as her mentor, and Gong Li as her bitter rival. Chinese, Japanese...what’s the difference?

It’s not that Japanese should only be played by Japanese. It’s not even that the three actresses in question look very obviously Chinese, although they do. (Not that it’s always so easy to tell; if you pride yourself on being able to tell Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans apart, try this test: But isn’t there something absurd and a bit painful about the spectacle of *Chinese* actresses having to learn to speak broken *English* while playing *Japanese* characters in a movie that takes place exclusively in Japan? (I read in a N.Y. Times article that certain lines had to be rewritten because they were too difficult to pronounce. I assume not by Yeoh, who’s as fluent as you or I, but the others had never done a movie in English before.)

Racism has nothing to do with the silly casting—it’s all about the bottom dollar, and Hollywood, being Hollywood, is going to cast the closest thing to Tom Cruise (here, Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai”) and Julia Roberts among Asian stars, especially in such a risky venture as an all-Asian story! The studio execs want face recognition and association. They want Joe Smith in the audience, watching the trailer, to recognize Zhang Ziyi and/or Michelle Yeoh and think, “Oh, that’s the chick from ‘Crouching Tiger.’ I dig that movie. I dig her. Ergo I will dig this movie about her playing a hot geisha – maybe I’ll get to see her nekkid!” (Fat chance, by the way, of that.) They’re probably also hoping Jane Smith, sitting next to him, will think, “Pretty Asian girl in sweeping love story, colorful background, women tutoring other women, women against other women – like ‘Crouching Tiger’ – only it’s in Japan! Japan is beautiful and exotic. I like Japan. I like stories of female bonding and female rivalry. Maybe I’ll like this movie.”

Well, whatever it takes. That’s Hollywood.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read the book,'ll see that a lot of your concerns were addressed. Don't know about the movie (yet), but the book was pretty great.

1:41 PM  
Blogger echan said...

Stay away from the book, m'dear. I was forced to read it as part of an "Asian American Literature" class even though it: (1) wasn't written by an Asian American author; and (2) didn't involve Asian America. I've always detested the notion of Golden attempting to mimic the psyche of a Japanese geisha.

2:29 PM  
Blogger echan said...

And I find it funny that you've panned the movie even before it has come out.

(Even though I boycotted the Last Samurai, I think that I am going to see this one).

2:31 PM  
Blogger ToastyKen said...

This is why I think Harold and Kumar is the crowning achievement of Asian-American cinema. :D (No, I'm serious!)

4:35 PM  
Blogger LVJeff said...

Seeing the trailer actually gave me a similar reaction -- it was like a pretty, extended version of one of the Joy Luck Club stories (itself a decent book/movie, but the movie's become a bit of a joke of Eastern (immigrant and Asian-American) struggles microwaved for Western sensibilities). My brother's already been making fun of the broken English line, "You are to become... geisha!", for weeks now. I haven't read the book either, and I'm more than willing to give the movie a chance, but your description of the American/Chinese/Japanese triangular conundrum is pretty much spot-on -- what better way to sell a Western product about the East than to blatantly disregard the differences between Chinese and Japanese? I mean, geez, not even one Japanese actress? Yes, those Chinese actresses are glamourous and I love to see them work, but implications of the casting are perhaps more insidiously disturbing than we're all willing to admit.

1:26 PM  
Blogger dan said...

yeah, but Keira Knightley is hot.

11:39 PM  
Blogger jchensor said...

That's so funny, toastyken, 'cause I keep saying that too. It's really funny to find someone who thinks that no movie has yet to portray current Asian-Americans better than Harold and Kumar.

I really need to own that movie. ^_^

4:31 AM  

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