Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why I have no intention of going to see "Memoirs of a Geisha"

As the usual pre-Oscar marketing blitz takes hold I am increasingly being subjected to queries about when I'm planning to go see "Memoirs of a Geisha". The simple answer is, some time after hell freezes over.
In a way I suppose I know why people are asking what to me seems like a completely asinine question to be asking a feminist married to an Asian man. My interest in Japanese pop culture is fairly well known at work, mostly due to the fact that I have little badges of one of my favourite bands (L'arc En Ciel, in case anyone was wondering) decorating the bag I take to work (and yes, I know having badges on my bag is kind of juvenile - so shoot me). Since the badges are of cute little cartoon figures of the band, this tends to lead to people asking me what they're all about, hence my fondness for the Japanese rock scene being fairly well known to my co-workers.
Why this should lead anyone to assume that I would want to see a crappy Hollywood blockbuster about a faux-Japanese woman being forced into sexual slavery by a rigidly patriarchal culture that hardly even exists and more is, however, a little difficult to understand.
Why do I despise the very idea of this movie? Oh, let me count the ways. Firstly, the book on which the movie is based is in turn loosely (and I mean VERY loosely) based on the memoirs of an actual former geisha. The woman in question is on record stating that she is not at all happy with what the (sexist, racist, clearly not too bright) American author did with her memoirs. Indeed, Mr Golden should consider himself lucky that the woman in question's very Japanese good manners have thus far prevented her from giving him the taking down that he so richly deserves for his very silly book.
Secondly, memo for racist Hollywood executives - I hate to break it to you but, despite what you seem to believe, all Asian people do not in fact look alike. Japanese and Chinese people in particular do not look alike at all. Over Christmas the subject of this movie came up while I was having dinner with my in laws (note - I was the only non-Asian person in the room). The first comment made by each and every person was "but she looks so Chinese!". This is in no way intended as an insult,by the way - Zhang Ziyi is a very beautiful woman. What she is quite clearly not, however, is Japanese. And why, pray tell, does her character in this movie have blue eyes? She's not supposed to be hapa - were the creators of this movie under the impression that colored contacts were in common use in Kyoto during the 1930s?
So, all the main female roles in the movie (with one exception which is a fairly minor role) are played by Chinese actresses, none of whom look remotely Japanese. The wierdness of this is even more emphasised by the fact that all of the leading actors are Japanese, which leads to a rather odd visual effect - in what strange country inhabited only by Chinese women with wierd fake-looking blue eyes and Japanese men is this story supposed to be set?
Secondly, why did they film most of the movie in California? Golden Gate Park is very pretty, but it doesn't exactly bear an overwhelming resemblence to the traditional gardens of Kyoto. To anyone who's ever seen the real Kyoto, even in pictures, the scenery is downright distracting. The trees and flowers are all wrong. You keep expecting a couple of Deadheads to come ambling out of the bushes and offer Sayuri a hit off their bong.
Thirdly, why are some of the characters speaking with strange faux-Japanese accents? Either English or Japanese would be fine, but pick a language and stick with it. The dialect in this film is verging on Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's levels of offensiveness in some of the clips I've seen. Was there really any need for that?
Fourthly, could you find a more offensive stereotype of the passive, compliant Asian woman than the geisha? No wonder the white male racists who run the movie business love the idea of this movie. They'll be eating it up in Peoria, mark my words. Our MRA friends will be in heaven.
Fifthly, why does American pop culture persist in painting Japan as a country trapped in amber, as if wandering ronin still walked the land? From Shogun to Lost In Translation to this, I've yet to see an American movie dealing with Japan that didn't make me want to either throw something at the screen or curl up in embarrasment while apologising profusely for the stupidity of my countrymen.
And speaking of Lost in Translation, Chris Doyle (fabulous Aussie born, HK based cinematographer) had a great rant about that movie and what it says about Western racism and cultural arrogance. I'd love to see what he has to say about this steaming pile of stereotypes.
Lastly, if they really had to make this stupid movie, couldn't they have at least have noticed that the lot of the geisha was not a happy one, and I don't mean in a faux-romantic/tragic way but in a quite genuine sexual slavery and being required to kiss ass for a living really sucks kind of way? And I know I'm going on about this, but could they really not find a Japanese actress to play the lead? If one was making a blockbuster with a Japanese female lead who is required to sing, dance and play musical instruments wouldn't you think that they logical person to cast would be, say, Ayumi Hamasaki (who not only used to be an actress but can actually sing)? Of course, Ms Hamasaki would have probably had enough common sense and general self respect to refuse to have anything to do with this pile of crap.
Finally - have the producers of this movie never heard the phrase "comfort women"? To make a movie about Japan featuring a cast of Chinese actresses and have them play, of all things, glorified prostitutes...the mind boggles.
Please don't misunderstand me - I like Zhang Ziyi, and I LOVE Gong Li, who is one of the most talented actresses working today and who deserves far better than this exploitative nonsense. It's just that the whole idea of this project pretty much stinks from start to finish. What the hell were any of the people involved thinking? And are American audiences really stupid enough to think that the life of a geisha was "romantic", and to be unable to tell the difference between a Chinese and a Japanese woman? Sadly, I suspect that the answer to both is probably yes. How very depressing.
The SF Bay Guardian has a number of notable comments about this movie in this week's issue, including one that called in a slap in the face to all Asian Americans. Judging from the reactions it's getting from the people I know, that seems to be a not uncommon reaction. Merry fucking Christmas from Hollywood, where sexism and racism are both still very much the order of the day.


Anonymous said...

"are American audiences really stupid enough ... to be unable to tell the difference between a Chinese and a Japanese woman? Sadly, I suspect that the answer to both is probably yes. "

Lou Diamond Philips made a living playing Hispanic men, and Americans are far better acquainted with Hispanic men than with Japanese women.

Of course, I can't think of the last time I saw a Jewish actor play a distinctly Irish-American role. But it's not an exception for the white ethnic groups: witness Liam Neeson in Rob Roy.

I think the standard is whether the producers' and casting directors' friends will remark on it.


StealthBadger said...

Depressing, but true.

Most of the Geisha stuff falls under the same dynamic as the sensationalization of the two North Carolina cheerleaders allegedly "having sex" in a bathroom stall. Namely that your fantasies have some basis in reality. With the cheerleaders, it's "wow, hot women really do this!" With Memoirs, it's "and they like it, too!" (since the emotional suffering of someone you've objectified is effectively invisible).

StealthBadger said...

"this" in "do this" would be all the stupid stereotypes that are painted on people for no good reason except to enable others to say things like "well that's what they deserve," "she wanted it," or "that's just the way the world works."

Shogun said...

Have you actually read the book though? She was not forced into sexual slavery, that's not what a geisha is, GEI means art, a Geisha is a person who prectices the arts, they perform dances, sing songs, play music and engage in conversation. The fact that they pour tea in teahouses has nothing to do with anything.

I agree, the woman who plays Sayuri in the movie does not look Japanese and has a very stron Chinese accent, which I find very offputting.

Also if you'd read the book, you would see that the little girl was born with blue eyes, that's why they thought she was so strange, and wanted her to try her luck as a geisha.

OOO~ Ayumi as Sayuri, I would so go to see that~ *Loves Ayumi*

Also, The geisha themselves think that being a geisha is a romantic thing to be, that's why a lot of women train to be a geisha.

I certainly agree with the American racism, and other things like that though. Your points are very good, but some are somewhat unresearched.

The Haikuist said...

I have no interest in the movie either. That being said, I noted that Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of the movie, the casting for that movie was based on box office calculations: "The movie was cast partly on the basis of star power: Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh are not only great beauties and gifted actresses, but box office dynamite. Even in Japan, Zhang and Li outgross any Japanese actress."

These same sorts of ethnic differences in appearance exist among caucasians that exist among Asians. Italians often don't look like Irish people, who often don't look like Russians. Viggo Mortensen looks very Danish, and would not be mistaken for a Spaniard. But in reality, caucasian actors are often cast based on star power or acting ability or perhaps totally silly criteria, even when they don't match the ethnicity of the role. As some critic (maybe Ebert) pointed out, Marlon Brando may not have been an Italian-American, but he still made a pretty good godfather. I think that viewers are used to suspending disbelief when they see this sort of thing going on among caucasian actors, and it is perhaps the novelty of it happening in a file with Asian roles that is striking, but in reality is is just continuing a practice that goes on all the time in film roles.

Cassandra Says said...

Shogun - I hated the book too. I know that Sayuri has blue eyes there too, which was part of my point - the guy who wrote the book didn't really understand his source material, and it shows. The real geisha whose memoirs he based the book on has been quite pointed, in her very polite way, about the fact that he completely misinterpreted her experiences.
Also, as a feminist and a socialist I'm not buying the geishas-are-romantic theory. People have romanticised their own oppression throughout history. People used to romanticise bound feet, and arranged marriage. That does not make any of these things any less repellent in reality.

Cassandra Says said...

Also, not to be rude, but I HATE Ayu's music. I respect her ability to control her own image rather than letting it control her a la Britney etc, but the music could not be more dull and uninteresting.

belledame222 said...

I was just thinking as I was reading that the actresses are all Chinese about the "comfort women." I suppose a smarter filmmaker could have used that consciously. Bets that neither the book author nor the filmmaker(s) even know the term?

It's true that Hollywod fudges ethnic/cultural identities all the time, "white" ones included. Among the stranger choices: Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep (well, Streep is a goddess regardless, but Nicholson?) in the very-Jewish "Heatburn;" or Tom Hanks as an upper-class uber-WASP in "Bonfire of the Vanities;" or Mercedes Ruehl playing just about any "earthy" culture they have a need for (Jewish, Italian, Latina, u name it), or...

unfortunately that really doesn't make anything better wrt this flick. and yeah the geisha thing is really...something. The blue eyes business almost makes it sound like a VC Andrews novel, you know, that kind of swoony, stylized goth where the women are both passive and terribly abused, but they *look* fabulous, dammit (and usually in some exotic-yet-Anglo, Mary-Sue sort of way--violet eyes, hair of purest platinum...)

I confess I did like "Lost in Translation," although I understand from several Japanese acquaintances that they, too, found it egregious. Mainly because I liked the weird twilight-zone romance-thing between Johanssen and Murray, although I get that it's insulting to use the excuse for your culture being misportrayed as "it was only ever a backdrop for the real story anyway."