Monday, December 26, 2005

memoirs of inauthenticity

Before seeing Memoirs of a Geisha I thought my objection would be the de-Japanification of that exactly most specifically Japanese of all topics--geisha, for the sake of commercial viability. I was wrong, that is only one of my objections.

The movie plods oh how it plods. The Chinese actresses who play the three main characters do their best but have been cast only with an eye to box-office appeal. They are all better draws even in Japan than any Japanese actress. Though fabulous, especially Gong Li as "Hatsumomo", they don't look Japanese, or convey geisha or Japanese-ness. They can't. It's not simply a matter of acting. Is this a quibble?

There is the language problem. Dubbing and subtitles are box-office poison of course but this alternative, in which everyone speaks English in a slightly British, over-deliberate halting manner, abstracts the characters right out of their setting. Japan without the Japanese language misses most of the point of the place.

The conceit is that you are equipped with a universal translator, or that it's just a really good dubbing job. This conceit breaks down if you introduce actual English speakers into the movie which they do. When the Yanks arrive Sayuri speaks English to one of them (hey, it's Stottlemyer from Monk!) without missing a beat. Huh? Michelle Yeoh speaks beautiful real English to Ziyi Zhang who is obviously just speaking English phonetically.

I used to watch Sumo on NHK TV. You could hear the commentary in Japanese or in English. Even though I couldn't follow all of the Japanese commentary, I couldn't bear to listen to the American announcers. It was excruciating, because a Japanese art, minus its native language, becomes a travesty. The language is woven into the art.

People wonder why Americans can't tell the difference among Asians. We often just use the term "Chinese". But Asians here will mix it up if there's a buck to be had in the blurring of the lines. Chinese restaurants serve cheap sushi and sake at their luncheon buffets. Few of the knife-twirling cooks at Bisuteki are Japanese, but they pretend they are. We are none the wiser. Who cares, a bit of non-threatening faux-exoticism is enough for us. Beyond that and whoa, easy on the details, Poindexter-san!

This would all matter less if the story itself were not so leaden. Eight-year-old Chiyo falls in love with the "Chairman" after a five-minute exchange? How old is a Chairman? It is absurd. Fifteen or whatever years later, after surviving the war, she is now in her mid-twenties, so he is now what, sixty? Chiyo has grown into the adult Sayuri, while Ken Watanabe looks as if he has aged about a month. An apparent 30-year age difference is reduced to a more palatable say, fifteen-year difference at the end, but if you do the arithmetic, the result is preposterous not to mention creepy. Will she be happy for long, spoon-feeding him his tofu in his dotage?

Hatsumomo and Sayuri get into a fight and start a fire in the okiya. Hatsumomo further lights the joint up by spilling oil lamps, and...nothing? The whole neighborhood would have burned down. What happened?

The deprivations of war changed everything, forever, says the narrator. World War II is a picturesque distraction consisting of a couple of trucks rolling through "Gion" or Thousand Oaks, CA, and a shot of planes overhead. These years pass in a minute. Then we see Michelle Yeoh again, expecting her to have aged terribly. But she too seems to be little the worse for wear, having also aged about a month. Her deprivation seems to consist of changing to a modest gray kimono and leaving her hair untended for a day or so.

Bah! Too bad. Compare this turgid plod to Kar Wai Wong's hallucinogenic 2046 also starring Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang, and the House of Flying Daggers, to see what Zhang is capable of. And of course, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to see Zhang and Yeoh fly.

My favorite Asia-through-the-eyes-of-clueless-Americans movie is Green Berets made in 1968. Starring John Wayne, and featuring such local talent as Jack Soo (Det. Yemana from Barney Miller), and George (Mr. Sulu) Takei playing South Vietnamese Army officers. Wayne, Aldo Ray and a crew of paunchy, freshly shaved and scrubbed middle-aged farts lumbering around Georgia among the arid pine forests playing soldier in the jungle. The pine jungle. It looks about as much like Southeast Asia as Norway.


nickensr said...

So, what is your point? We’ve spoken about topics like this for some time now and why on this subject do you seam so sensitive? ;-) I understand your point is not built upon the requirement for racial or ethnic purity in plays and movies. Rather does using ethnically accurate people or ethnically accurate dialog lend to an authenticity to a movie or play. I’ve always thought it matters for the main characters in period pieces. Seriously, Mel Gibson had to cast James Caviezel as Jesus?

However, I would separate the abuse of ethnic roles with the horribly managed movie time lines; these are not akin when movies are concerned. The highly implausible individual rates of change of the actors can make it seam like people are trapped on a malfunctioning holodeck of the Enterprise-D. This type of continuity issue is closely related to the impossibility of loud explosions in the vacuum of space. The director is hoping that you focus on the spectacle rather than the plausibility.

Are you recommending the movie for theater or DVD?

Neil said...

I get annoyed when a movie promises to explore a topic that is culturally-specific, then doesn't bother to follow through. If the ostensible point of your movie is to reveal the secret world of the geisha, which is a specifically and uniquely Japanese phenomenon, then it seems to me
you have made a pact with your audience to be authentic.

If on the other hand you are merely using it as a picturesque backdrop for a generic love story, then I say you are a mere cultural carpetbagger, whose interest is only commercial viability in which case, your movie is trite and will be forgotten in five years.

I don't care if they cast say, a Japanese-American as a Korean shop owner, when it isn't central to the plot anyway. But in the case where the precise thing your movie is about is unique to a particular culture, then it matters.

Compare say The Green Berets, about the Vietnam war but without any Vietnamese actors, with The Killing Fields.

If you want to make a great movie, authenticity is a good place to start. They go to all this trouble to create authentic-looking architecture, then don't bother with the characters! The sign of a director who only understands the exterior of his own story.

I'd recommend this at the theatre because it's visually stunning. But it's at least 20 minutes too long, so bring the No-Doz.

Otherwise see The House of Flying Daggers!