Friday, December 16, 2005

Howard French on Hollywood and Asians

Howard French, who always produces good stuff, had another piece in the International Herald Tribune on Asians and Hollywood.

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.

the leaky pen commented a couple of weeks ago on the "race traitor" aspect of this issue, not touched on here by French.

If you don't think of women as property you probably won't get it, but the Chinese are outraged about their national beauty, Zhang Ziyi's, appearance in the new film Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). First there was flurry of Chinese cyber-belligerence about a clip with a sex scene supposedly showing Zhang making it, in the buff, with a Japanese man. The clip was bogus, and unfortunately there are probably not going to be any sex scenes in this film about geishas (藝伎, or Japanese courtesan) because the censors are cracking down on it hard. Nevermind that Miss Zhang had already played a nightclub hostess in Wong Kar Wai's 2046 (2004), she was half-naked with a Chinese man, HK icon Tony Leung. Now she's playing a Japanese woman having sex with a Japanese man.

Hollywood certainly has serious problems, especially with Asian women, who always know Kungfu, and Asian men, who tend to show up in technician roles. I was gratified to watch The Truman Show again the other day, and see the Asian woman there behaving exactly like everyone else. Naturally, in Weir's brilliant satire of white America's fantasies, there are no Asians in Truman's own world -- a problem France has reminded us lately, has real costs.


Anonymous said...

OMG! I think it's totally wrong to assume that the behaviour of a tiny town of 5000 in Australia, is indicative of our 20M+ population.

What really happened in Cronulla, NSW, was not racially motivated. It was in fact, about gang violence (add copious amounts of alcohol and drugs) and general, anti-social behaviour in young people.

It was nothing like the French riots, Michael! Another, don't forget, it has not 'spread' to the rest of the country. Indeed, the rival gangs have even 'embraced' and apologised for their violent behaviour (even admitting that they were too drunk to know any better).

Having been here for 19 years, I can categorically say that racism is not endemic in this country. You can also easily see minority ethnic groups represented in the media/bureaucracy/government.

Cheers, Jen (a.k.a. Naruwan Girl) in Melbourne. =D

Michael Turton said...

Thanks! The media was talking about spreading violence....

Mark said...

This whole outrage about Zhang Zi Yi being casted accross from a Japanese actor is telling about Asia. How many British men do you think turn uncomfortably in their beds at night thinking how Catherine Zeta Jones, one of their own, betrayed her people by appearing in sex scenes in Zorro with Antonio Banderas, a Spanish man? I'm guessing it's not very many. It's true that the British and the Spanish were on the same side in the war, but would there be an outrage if Jones appeared in love scenes with a German man? Of course not.

The whole concept of a "race traitor" is very, very hard for me to wrap my brain around. If Zhang Zi Yi sold military intelligence to Japan, then she'd be a traitor. But it would be treason against her country, not her "race".

P.S. Michael, I moved my blog to wordpress. Now my address is

Jing said...

You of all people should know that distinctions of ethnicity and nationality are blurred in east Asia particularly in countries which are for the most part homogenous.

However, I should point out that the term Han Jian has a historical context, that of WW2 collaborators with Japanese controlled puppet government. The term doesn't translate exactly as race traitor but rather as a traitor to the Han. Which I suppose can be translated as race traitor but as I first mentioned, race and nationality are not neccessarily distinct in east Asia.

Michael Turton said...

You of all people should know that distinctions of ethnicity and nationality are blurred in east Asia particularly in countries which are for the most part homogenous.

But jing, isn't that idea of "homogenous" simply a political construction whose purpose is to create a idealized racial situation in which there are no competing ethnicities? It seems almost like "race" is the east's answer to the problem of centripetal localism in Asian politics -- since there is no nation, the answer to localities going their own way is to posit a common race....

Anonymous said...

No, it hasn't 'spread', although saying so would sell a lot more newspapers and TV ads, I am afraid. :-(

Jen in Melbourne.

Mark said...

What is "Han", exactly? Cultural pracices vary widely all throughout China. Many cornerstones of Chinese culture, such as New Year celebrations, are copied in Japan. Most Chinese people I've asked have answered that the difference is "blood".

However, one would do well to remember that Nothern Han have less genetice differences with Japanese and Koreans than they do with Southern Han. Likewise Southern Han are genetically closer to Vietnamese than they are to Northern Han. The whole idea of a Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or even a Han "race" is bogus. Even Chinese research has supported this fact.

Genetic relationship of populations in China

Michael Turton said...

Great link, Mark. Many thanks!