Spelunkings of a Geisha

Monday, 16 January 2006 — 4:19pm | Film, Full reviews

I saw Brokeback Mountain before Christmas, but my review was held off until last Thursday, since the paper was on hiatus. The problem with being one of the last people to write 500 words about Brokeback is that there is very little to say about it that has not already been said, to the point where one could probably devise some kind of systematic indexing scheme for stock criticism about how it’s not just a gay cowboy movie, but speaks universal truths about forbidden love. The claim is true enough, but so much of the movie’s assets lie in nuance and subtlety – specific scenes, and specific gestures in specific scenes – that to haul it back to the level of capsule summary and holistic judgment is like restating the parallel postulate for everybody’s benefit when what you really want to do is examine transformations on hyperbolic surfaces.

The film is likely to pick up a whole heap of Golden Globes tonight, which I’m not watching thanks to Scrabble. I’ve never been suckered into the faux prestige of the Globes. The Hollywood Foreign Press has received a lot of undue attention by fortuitous statistical correlation to the Oscars alone – occasional, at that. And this year, they shafted both Munich in Drama and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in Comedy. I remember when they had the class and courage to shower quality animation on an equal level with live-action.

I usually don’t do a year-in-review of film until about February, and this will probably be the case again, though the only exciting omissions on the list of movies I watched in 2005 are Crash and Walk the Line. I’ll catch up soon enough.

But first, a few words about Memoirs of a Geisha.

Now, one might wonder why I’m drawing attention to such a middling melodrama of no great consequence. Indeed, I found Geisha to be terribly underwhelming, though only rarely outright terrible. (To its credit, it sports pretty pictures of cherry blossoms and a lush musical score that is unique in the John Williams oeuvre, though in the general case the instruments and pentatonic melodies of the Far East are nothing new.) I want to talk about it because it is receiving a lot of undeserved hostility from folks on high horses who haven’t earned their spurs.

First are the postmodern other-thumpers who wave their Edward Said in the air and dismiss offhand the validity of a story about sexualized foreigners told in the mode of western romance. I contend that this is a misapplication of Orientalism.

Orientalist critique serves to reveal unexamined prejudices that are specifically not contained in the text, and calling the artist on it. In Geisha there are many. That’s fair. But the danger that Orientalism counteracts is the possibility that some secluded bloke might take mythologized falsities for historical fact.

Orientalism is not a blanket injunction on all works of tourist’s-eye-view fiction. We make allowances for factual inaccuracy in fiction all the time if it contributes to good fiction. Once contextual correspondence is out of the way, and those inaccuracies have been identified, it’s the textual system that counts. I find it far more patronizing for western audiences to be prematurely offended on the behalf of other cultures without an understanding of the difference between inaccuracy and offensiveness. As a romance, the Geisha story as presented in the film is weak for a number of reasons, but its western perspective isn’t one of them.

Then there are those who are deeply offended by the casting of three high-profile Chinese actresses as the principal players in a story set in idyllic fascist Japan, whose soldiers were off raping and pillaging in Manchuria at the time. There’s no other way to put it: the claim that actors of one Asian ethnicity can’t play characters of another is flatly ridiculous. Nobody complained when House of Flying Daggers starred a Japanese actor – and that was in no less romantic a role (martial arts expert, passionate lover, you get the idea). Were Polish Jews offended when a big-nosed American named Adrien Brody was cast as the lead in The Pianist?

Heck, Canadian actors play Americans all the time, and we hate Americans. At least, that’s what the Liberal Party tells me… some of the time.

To defer to one of the greatest film directors of all time: if Anthony Quinn can play Auda Abu Tayi and Omar Sharif can play Dr. Zhivago, all bets are off. Does Auda Abu Tayi serve? No!

If there’s any hump to get over at all once we’re past the biggest one (appearances), it’s not cultural consciousness or genetic heritage. It’s language. Sure, you can play it safe and genuine and go with an all-British cast for a British film, as was done to great effect in the Harry Potter films. But even Audrey Hepburn pulled off Eliza Doolittle the guttersnipe flower-girl and Eliza Doolittle the fair lady. Dialect coaching works wonders.

That’s probably the one aspect where the Chinese/Japanese discrepancy actually comes out in Geisha – language. Apparently, English in a sufficiently Asian accent was enough, and nobody took the care to note that there are actually noticeable differences between a Chinese accent and a Japanese accent. (It’s generally, but not always, in how they handle the Ls and Rs.) At any rate, it’s not a discrete either-or proposition, and if you listen carefully, even a Mandarin accent sounds different from a Cantonese one. Michelle Yeoh speaks in a sort of nether region that actually serves to make her character one of the more regal ones in the film. Gong Li, on the other hand, just sounds uncomfortable. But it’s not her fault she got horrible lines. “I will destroy you!” Yeah, whatever.

Here is a legitimate reason to subject Memoirs of a Geisha to endless mockery:

“Did Mother ever tell you about the eel and the cave? Well, every once in a while, a man’s eel likes to visit a woman’s cave.”

I’m told it’s straight from the book.

And you can stop giggling now.

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