Sunday, June 10, 2007


Memoirs of a Geisha

I finally got around to seeing this movie. In fact, I've just finished watching it about 20 minutes ago. I went in with very low expectations and . . . was actually disappointed.

Seriously, I've always thought Golden did a pretty good job with the book--the whole "mizuage" issue aside. I've never liked the romantic story, or perhaps to be more accurate, I've never been persuaded by it. But on the whole, I felt like he was really imagining a world with many textures and smells and characters and I respected that. I thought many of his similes were very Japanese and his "feel" for his main character, quite authentic.

The movie though. Yeesh.

When I first heard about the film and how upset people were about the casting, I couldn't get too excited in kind. As has been pointed out by many, Cate Blanchett gets to play an English queen even though she's Australian, and lord knows how many Brits have played Americans and vice versa. It's not like there are so many great roles for Asian actors out there in Hollywoodland, so in general, I'm on the side of "inter-Asian casting." And since the book version of "Geisha," and the movie production were both American based, why were people suddenly clammering for real "Japanese authenticity"? I could see the furor if the book had been written by a real Japanese person, but it wasn't.

Then I finally sat down and watched the film. I have the heebies as a result.

It wasn't the Chinese actresses, or the wierd trying-to-pronounce English accents and needing-audio-geniuses-to-splice-in-syllables that bothered me. Nor was it that during a number of scenes I kept thinking to myself, "Hey. That looks like Northern California" (it was).

(Muir Beach anyone?)

It wasn't the psychotic "dance scene" in which Sayuri throws herself into a backbend worthy of a poster for Cirque du Soleil.

Nor did it bother me that we never saw anyone eating anything that wasn't in a cup or on a stick.

I was incredibly disappointed that all the characters were unrelentingly stiff. That's what I hate about "respectful minority entertainment." In wanting to be reverential, the director made all the characters come off as leaden and wooden. It was clear to me that neither the director nor the writer had any belief in the inner lives of these people. It was all repression and Zen koans instead of real dialogue. It was all "suffer suffer suffer" and "this is what it mean to be geisha," which made me think of C3PO mourning to R2D2, "It's our lot in life to suffer," and consequently made me giggle. What was with Hatsumomo wandering around Gion with that ridiculous Kabuki hair? Where was the real, intelligent and scheming woman that Golden created?

And then . . . there were moments when suddenly the film-makers couldn't help but exoticize their subjects. What, for example, was Sayuri doing in the onsen with the men? When on earth did that happen in the book? She protests to some white guy that she is "not for sale," but there she is frolicking naked in a tub of hot water with a bunch of guys? Who on earth came up with that idea? What the heck was she doing dipping her washcloth in the water (a strict no-no). I mean, if the movie was going to include a scene like that, then it should have done away with any pretense for guarding the geisha's dignity.

Ditto for the embarassing mizuage scene in which Sayuri appears in a scarlet robe. (Hint. She's in red and she's about to have sex for the first time!). She goes back to the okiya looking . . . all mysterious and deep and possibly wounded but maybe not 'cause she's a hot Asian chick and it's hard to read her emotions . . . and she is told: "Now you are a real geisha." Again. Not in the book. But I'm sure the idea that sex=geisha appealed to some producer somewhere, so they threw it in. Along with a bunch of bullsh*t about how geisha aren't prostitutes.

In other words, you could tell that the writers had read the book and tried to adapt it . . . but then had to throw in some kind of "spice" anyway which discredited the rest of the script. Why does anyone believe a geisha when she insists she is not a prostitute if she's told that she only becomes a geisha by having sex?

So, why would a writer do this? Well, there's the old "can't help but exoticize" answer. But I think it's more than that.

The movie is so incredibly stiff, at some point someone must have realized just how dead the storyline really was. There was no tension at all. And so a dash of "life" was thrown into the plot, the life being this sort of false drama that comes from Sayurai 1) becoming a true geisha at last by having sex, because mastering a bunch of fine arts just wasn't "dramatic" enough and 2) Sayuri forcing herself to have sex with a white man so we'd all feel just how icky her life really was.

But this isn't true drama--it isn't the kind of true storytelling tension that comes from creating a character that an audience loves and then putting her in a difficult situation that arises as a result of her world and the people around her (aka a realistic situation). Of course, to accomplish the latter, a writer or filmmaker has to believe in that character and in her world as inherently interesting; if the writer/director doesn't believe, then why should we?

I left the movie feeling as though the producer and director and crew all believed that the world of the geisha was physically beautiful. People always think that Japan is beautiful (or, northern California, as the case may be) and it is. But I didn't leave it believing in the inner lives of anyone on screen. And this makes me think that while Golden was able to make pages and pages of kimono embroidery and dance lessons interesting, Marshall could not because, at the end of the day, he couldn't find a way to believe in its worth himself. And thus we get, once again, sex=geisha.

In other words, as my fiance said, we leave this movie with no understanding of what a geisha is at all--which, in part, is what Golden worked to reveal to his readers. How sad is that?

The sad thing is that this movie did so poorly at the box office, it'll be a while before anyone "dares" to put together a film with an all Asian cast. Then again, if this is going to be the result, then I suppose it's best to keep Hollywood out of these Asian films all together.

Ugh. Now I'm all worked up and will doubtless sleep very poorly.

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