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The “Geisha” controversies.

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Zhang Ziyi.Rob Marshall‘s "Memoirs of a Geisha" has its world premiere in Tokyo tomorrow — we’ve made some mention about how extra-special our sight-unseen dislike of this film is, but we’re not the only ones fuming on the inside and ranting on the internet out there. There are two particular controversies and one possibly disproven one out there and up for discussion. May we?

Issue 1: Zhang Ziyi is Chinese but is playing a Japanese geisha.

Issue 2: Zhang Ziyi is Chinese but is playing a Japanese geisha.

Non-issue?: Zhang Ziyi gets nekkid and has hot sexx. Really a sub-part of Issue 2.

Stick with us as we parse the first two, because they really are two very separate things. Part the first: back in January, someone wrote in to Roger Ebert asking him if he didn’t think it was a bit of a scandal that Zhang was chosen for the lead role:

Ms. Zhang is a lovely and talented actress, but don’t you think that in all of Japan there is an equally talented and lovely Japanese actress who could play the part? I wonder if the selection of a Chinese actress to play a Japanese woman will sit well with Japanese fans of the book.

Ebert pragmatically answered that Zhang is the most famous Asian actress around at the moment, and that casting is generally all about star power. We’d heard that people were fussing about this, but it seems a lot like an issue that journalists would fall in love with and cover out of proportion than a real one. And yet, there the folks are, duking it out over at the IMDb boards for the film.

For fuckssake, all — the novel was written by a white guy born in Tennessee, who, as Isabel Reynolds at Reuters reminds us, was sued by Mineko Iwasaki, the book’s main inspiration, "failing to maintain her privacy, after he described such practices as ‘mizuage"’or the selling of a young geisha’s virginity to the highest
bidder, which she has been reported as saying does not exist." That, and it’s been Hollywood-ized into such a slick bit of orientalia that the lead’s ethnicity should be your least authenticity concern. Not to mention that we throw an Oscar nom at Meryl Streep whenever she slaps on an accent a pretends to be another ethnicity — of course, that’s acting. God forbid the women in this film be allowed that; they should be limited to re-enactments of their quaint cultural practices for our enlightenment.

Which brings us to part two, which we’ll pass along to Walter Chaw at the Film Freak Central Blog:

At least it’s better, a little, than Rob Marshall’s "Memoirs of a Geisha" which, besides describing one character as a war hero for being injured in the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (the sort of thing that irks me if no one else except two billion other Chinamen), has Chinese woman Zhang Ziyi and Malaysian-born Michelle Yeoh cast as Japanese Geishas. It’s the equivalent, not to put too fine a point on it, of a fine Jewish actress happily playing a heroic Nazi prostitute – bless Maggie Cheung for turning down the opportunity to sell out her culture. (And for what? Memoirs of a Freakin-Geisha? There’s not even the question of subversion here.)

[Chaw makes more fine points on the subject here.]

From Reynolds at Reuters:

"She’s sold her soul and betrayed her country. Hacking her to death would not be good enough," China’s state media quoted one blogger as saying of Zhang.

We suppose it comes down to that eternal dilemma — do you jump at a role that involves selling a bit of your soul because you know it’s the most plum one that will ever come around to you in the US? Or do you maintain the moral high ground and remain unknown to most of the international moviegoing public?

On to the nakedness: Jeremy Goldkorn at Danwei points out some stills making the rounds on Chinese forums, allegedly from a sex scene in the film, that riled up many a nationalist. The images turned out to have not even been from "Geisha," but discussion continues. Grady Hendrix at Kaiju Shakedown points out some infuriated translated Chinese editorials on the topic.

And over at the LA Times, John Horn reports on the filmmakers’ efforts to get their various Chinese, Japanese, and Malaysian-born actresses to speak in the same halting, accented English.

+ Star power overrides ethnicity (
+ Hollywood geisha raise eyebrows in Asia (Reuters)
+ Notes from the Trenches (Film Freak Central Blog)
+ Zhang Ziyi and Ken Watanabe – naked pics; hypersensitive ranting (Danwei)
+ ZHANG ZIYI’S "BIG WHITE BUTT" (Kaiju Shakedown)
+ Uniformity, so to speak (LA Times)

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