Letter from China: Hollywood, you have a problem with Asians

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 15, 2005
SHANGHAI We’ve come a long way from the 1930s, when Warner Oland, a Swedish-born actor, played the clever but ever-humble Charlie Chan in a series of black-and- white detective movies marked by preposterous wardrobe and makeup jobs and goofy fortune-cookie English deliveries of Confucian-sounding aphorisms.
We’ve even come a long way since 2003, when Hollywood delivered “The Last Samurai,” whose preposterousness had more to do with story line than production values. In that box office hit, amid the late 19th-century upheaval of the Meiji period, Japan’s culture and very identity are saved by a noble white knight – a literally white knight from the United States, played by Tom Cruise, to whom befalls the task of teaching the Japanese emperor how to honor his country’s rich past.
The year 2005 has bequeathed us yet another huge Hollywood production involving Asia, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which has taken the bold leap into the box office unknown by sparing its audience a Western lead. Here for the first time is a major Hollywood production about Asians in which the central cast is certifiably Asian.
The problem with “Geisha” is that it has cast the wrong Asians in its leading roles, specifically placing three major ethnic Chinese actresses in the role of geisha, one of Japan’s most rarefied cultural products.
For viewers in East Asia, home to a huge slice of the human population and to several of the world’s largest and most dynamic economies, Japan and China at the very top of the list, this is anything but a minor detail.
Indeed, “Geisha” has proven itself that powerful and rare catalyst, uniting armies of movie fans and online commentators in East Asia’s two giants, countries more typically at each other’s throats recently over matters of history and competing territorial claims.
Critics in both countries have had their reasons to complain. In China, where the word geisha is usually written with a character that means prostitute, there has been nationalist outrage that one of the country’s most popular young stars, Zhang Ziyi, plays the role of Sayuri, a village girl turned geisha who becomes the love interest of a powerful Japanese man during the years of war between the two countries. The Japanese practice of employing women in occupied countries like China and Korea as sex slaves for the entertainment of its troops is still a matter of living memory, and for some Chinese moviegoers this fact alone will make the film’s casting too hard to swallow.
For Japanese, the motives for dissatisfaction are more complicated. In their language, geisha means skilled person, and rarely has a title been more apt. Young women must spend years in strict training to become a geisha, re-learning how to play traditional instruments like the samisen, but also to dance, walk, bow, smile, speak and even laugh.
None of this would have come naturally to a modern Japanese cast, but neither would they have been starting from absolute zero.
“Geisha’s” Chinese actresses, by contrast, reportedly spent a six-week crash course for their roles, learning, among other things, how to speak Japanese-accented English. And although it is no fault of the cast, the movie has dispensed with some of the most distinctive characteristics of the geisha, from the heavy white makeup that transforms their faces into perfect masks, to their elaborately tied hair.
Surprising compromises also turn up in Zhang’s dance performance, which bears no similarity to anything a geisha would do.
Even before “Geisha” was released, some movie critics and film industry people had struck pre-emptively, in effect dismissing critics of the movie’s cultural accuracy as bad sports and people with no sense of humor.
While the movie’s director, Rob Marshall, has defended his casting choices, saying that he focused on the best available talent, not on nationality, others have said in effect, why get hung up on such minor details when there is a spectacle to be enjoyed? Some indeed have gone so far as to say an American audience is unlikely to be able to distinguish between Chinese and Japanese in the first place, and even less likely to care.
It may come as a surprise to people with this mindset, but East Asians do not tend to find that Koreans, Chinese and Japanese look alike. Nor for that matter do many outsiders who spend much time in this part of the world.
What does it really mean, though, to say that accurately capturing even basic cultural details in a movie that is actually all about culture, a distinguished foreign culture, is not important, or that the ethnicity of an actor in what is essentially a period piece from another culture doesn’t matter?
Seen against the backdrop of what Hollywood has done with Asians in the past, from the sputtering, fake-bucktoothed Mickey Rooney impersonating a certain idea of Chinese people in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to Harold Sakata, the speechless butler/villain named Oddjob in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger,” to the recently deceased Pat Morita, the Mr. Miyagi character in the “Karate Kid” series who served as the television industry’s all-purpose Asian – Chinese, Korean or Japanese, according to the needs of the script – it is hard to escape the conclusion there are real and serious problems here.
To be absolutely truthful, the problem goes beyond Hollywood, and beyond Asia, too. It has to do with long-ingrained attitudes involving how the West sees itself and how it sees the rest of the world – the one high, the other low.
This same reflexive disregard was on display during the Iraq war-related “uranium from Africa” controversy, where few in politics or in the press could bring themselves to say the name of the country concerned – Niger. Africa was specific enough.
Although it may not be well-advised, it is still safe to treat Africa this way, as an undifferentiated blob, a backdrop for tragedy or adventure, according to our humors. Africa, weak, poor and riven, is not about to strike back. Asia, however, is a different matter.
The last century of bitter, bloody history between Japan and China has been closely related to a struggle by Asians to recover their dignity vis-·-vis the West. The coming century may not exactly be Chinese, as some have predicted, but it will almost certainly be in a significant sense Asian, and for Western audiences, a little more familiarity and attention to detail now couldn’t hurt.
E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com

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