Even the yojimbo doesn't approve
Blind Lemon Jefferson - "Disgusted Blues" (mp3)
I have been putting off a full post on Memoirs of a Geisha, because of the sheer volume of thoughts screaming in my head. In truth, I look at my notes and realize I have been waiting for over two months to write about this film, but it is obvious now that there are several different topics tugging at me. So, a quick SPOILER alert, and, in the words of the Choco Boy Wonder, keep it simple stupid -- let's rap about a rat.
To start, when I am at a loss for words I turn to that tennô-blog in the sky and summon forth one phrase:
"Hot," because, as Manohla Dargis pointed out in her NY Times review, the film dwells in lustful, soap opera territory (which may explain the soaps-style casting). Children sold off. Children separated. Child beaten. Child falls in love (with 40+ year old man). Child beaten some more. Child grows up to be a teen who gets in catfights. Cat-calling. Rape. More catfights. War. Blue-collar labor. Longing for love. Arranging sex to ward off attention of unwanted lover, thus freeing girl to pursue true love, but inadvertently warding off true love instead. Absolvement with true love. The End. If Passions is your thing, then the numerous disconnected and poorly-timed plotlines of this film will surely entertain you. However, if you appreciate a well-written, well-organized melodrama, then this film will bore the eff out of you.
"Ass," because this was the apparent organ-of-choice during the planning process of the film. A small sampling:
- Production support from Spyglass Entertainment and Spielberg? Ok. Investing such lush support in spotty research, poor scripting and questionable direction? Wot, wot, wot???
- Casting A-list actors like Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe and Gong Li? Ok. Having each of these non-English speakers speak in alternating broken/Queen's English in a film set in Japan with Japanese characters? Must've been too much green in they tea!
- Slapping a Hollywood seal of approval on Asian culture in cinema by sponsoring a film using Asian culture? I'm hesitant, like when I'm being distracted by the nurse before the booster shot, but ok... Making a movie that (ab)uses Asian culture as a backdrop for a shitty storyline? Hell to the nah!
...a "Mess," because of the sheer volume of inaccuracies, failures and disasters that "Hot" and "Ass" add up to. Junichi Semitsu hit the two immediate points that bothered me: 1) the incredulity of this "romance" (thus proving the validity of my theory that you can buy off a girl that you like-like with icy goodness); and 2) the flagrancy of bloken engrish accents ("...in my opinion, a Japanese girl in a catfight with another Japanese girl while in Japan - in a movie funded by a Japanese company - should probably be speaking Japanese. And anybody with an interest in seeing this film will be literate enough to read subtitles"). And then there's the salty wash of tinted contacts, absurd parallels with and inversions of the Sweet Charity/Whore-With-A-Heart-Of-Gold storyline (apparently the screenwriter couldn't decide how inaccurately they wanted to portray geisha: as tortured whores? or as sweet goodies with a sticky red bean filling? both!), chintzy choreography (for a hilarious comparison, please compare the dance sequences with those of the actual prostitutes' in Yojimbo), gratuitous close-ups (emote, Ziyi, emote!), unnecessary use of filters (so sad!) and, I will go out on a limb, a suspect catering budget. But a summation of my dismay goes a little something like this: A Complete Waste of Talent and Money.
Look, let's put all these shards of frustration and annoyance together.
First, Memoirs is a film. I concede that racial bias makes my first impulse to raze the red lantern. But even when analyzing the film on its cinematic qualities, I find it a poor and unimaginative piece of work. In addition to the aforementioned technical flaws, the story is generally a poor execution of plain ol' conflict-resolution (introduction of protag, conflict, protag's shortcoming, training sequence wherein protag's shortcoming is overcome and resolution; by the way, you realize this is the structure of wuxia?). However, the pacing of the first quarter drags when excessive time is spent on the backstory to the backstory, leaving the audience wondering, "Where's Ziyi?" When the main character's conflict is introduced and the catalyst for her "training" occurs, perhaps two minutes (at most) are devoted to charting her "mastery" of her "craft." Instead of demonstrating to the audience why the main character deserves the reputation of being the top geisha of the game, the film makes clear its intention of dressing itself in the exotic fashions of long gazes, backstabbing, backstabbing of backstabbers and pettiness.
Even the film's greatest assets, its stars, cannot overcome such poor character development. The excellent Kaori Momoi and brilliant Gong Li are forced to troll through stock tropes of unreigned lust, menstruating hysteria and Crawfordian connivance... minus any of the appealing qualities Crawford gave to such menace (Please note, fault cannot be placed on actresses when a director is present; after all, there's a difference in responsibility between the one who signs the checks and the one who receives them). Instead, they are forced to tread the depth of Cinderella's evil step-biatches and appear onscreen solely to poke and prod Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi). In fact, contrary to Dargis' mild interpretation, their respective appearances alone bathe in and update the Dragon Lady stereotype. Swap a cheongsam out with dull clothing, Joyner-Kersee nails for some long Lee Press-ons and an effed-up accent with another effed-up accent and it's the Next Episode: 2005.
As for our main star, the girl plods through a pigsty of a script, falling into or out of other characters' arms with little directorial or camera focus to make it clear that we are supposed to know what's going on in her head. Oh, and the screaming mimi cop-out that your emotions will be explained to you? The present-day narration. Skanks for nothing. On the otherhand, if silence speaks volumes maybe Ziyi should've stayed quiet for the entire film. Where her wide-eyed looks of adolescent glee and doe-eyed bursts of unbridled passion have worked wonders in films based in her native tongue, her cotton-mouthed performance is simply painful to watch.
That said, any audience member who lives in America has to recognize a central characteristic about this country: race pays. Depending on the color, depending on the situation, race can work for and/or against you. The bottom line is that it matters, it exists. And Hollywood has been no different than any other business or art form in both exploiting and addressing it.
And this is where Memoirs inevitably runs into its social critique. Quite frankly, the film stands in line with a legacy bookended by such classics as Charlie Chan and Last Samurai. But modern times mean modern perspectives, right? So, you'd think that Memoirs would make an effort to step beyond Flower Drum Song rhetoric. But with all the aforementioned flaws, the film sinks under its skewed perspective. A telling point of the film's failure is when the American Army officer describes Sayuri as one of the "mysteries of the Orient." Unwavering faith that this is not a malicious film tells me the line is meant to paint the officer as a rube, especially when he is in the company of a gang of Japanese characters. But the line has the complete opposite effect: it illuminates the fact that Memoirs is purely the East held through the Western (kill the blue-eyed jokes!) gaze. Worse, it it is indicative of the film's willingness to observe without any active interest in understanding. Much like how Lost in Translation successfully used Tokyo (and, one extrapolates, all of Japan)'s otherness as a festive backdrop for Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray's existentialist romps through postgrad/midlife malaise, Memoirs sticks to the stump speech of the '90s (yeah, it's that behind): "Japan isn't weird and exotic. It's just different."
A couple final points:
- I am not upset that a film that stars Japanese characters and set in Japan does not star many Japanese actors. This is a Hollywood film; if I want an all-Japanese cast, I know where to get my Japanese-made films. Also, I understand there is leeway for the actor's craft. Besides, I'm sure we all agree that the English don't have sole propriety over Shakespeare. Lastly, I am very pleased to see several terrific actors (got my eye on you, Yakusho Kôji) gettin' they daps and gettin' paid, too. As Erin Quill recently elucidated, one way to combat the underepresentation of Asians and Asian-Americans in media is to simply get out there. As any person of color knows (or if you don't, just look at some population stats, like here), we are called minorities for a numerically accurate reason. Granted, certain cities have ratios that differ drastically. But we're talkin' about the whole pie, people. Therefore, the pressure is on us to go out there with our best foot forward. Sure, I cry The Man a'plenty, but momma always said, "Crying gets you nowhere."
- And I'm not going to fault the film for the merchandising. Frankly, a lot of the stuff looks laughably bad.
Big ups to imdiversity for citations.