Monday, May 15, 2006

Hollywood Thinks You're Stupid

Ok, the title should not come as a shock to anybody, but it's true, Hollywood thinks you are stupid. What brought this particular rant on, though? Well, the wife and I just watched Memoirs of a Geisha the other night, that's why. Eh? Follow me here.

Now, before I continue, I should note that I took 2 years of Japanese as my language requirement back in college, and I've logged probably in excess of 1000 hours listening to Japanese being spoken (mostly in the form of animated films, old samurai flicks, and a bunch of Kurosawa and Miyazaki, apart from class-related activities). So, I think I've developed an ear, at least, for what the language ought to sound like -- not that I'm fluent in it myself, mind you -- it's been 6 years since I last studied it.

Clearly, this film is holds itself as an authentic look into immedately pre- and post-WWII Japan, particularly through the lense of that uniquely Japanese cultural phenomenon that was geisha.
And yet, to accomplish this goal, they hired for their lead roles non-Japanese actresses to play the lead roles! Not just filler roles, but the two main roles of Sayuri (the Geisha whose Memoirs are being told), and Hatsumomo, her main geisha rival, played by Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li, respectively. Oh, and the primary supporting character of Mameha, Sayuri's mentor? Michelle Yeoh. It's beginning to read like a Hong Kong action flick. I was expecting Chow-Yun Fat to come out any moment as the emperor, with bodyguard Jet Li, and Jackie Chan as none other than Tojo himself!

Anywho, I thought Hollywood, for all its self-righteous, smug pomposity, had at least moved beyond the awkward and embarassing days of white men in blackface, or the leading men of the day smearing brown paint on their faces to play mexicans or indians (dots, yes, and feathers!) or arabs or Klingons or what-have-you -- I thought we had reached a point where people of ethnicity X got to play people of ethnicity X, except in such cases where ethnicity X is only distinct by its language rather than any physical appearance, in which case other people might suffice (I'm thinking here of americans playing Europeans and vice-versa, mostly -- although some Arab roles might fall into this as well as some Indian/Pakistani/Bengali roles). Sure, a lot of different Asian ethnicities are not all that different to our indiscriminate eyes, but please -- the actresses in question, in this country at least, are almost famous merely because of their ethnicity!

Ok, so that's one: casting chinese (well, two chinese and a malaysian, but they all speak chinese, anyhow) actresses in very Japanese roles. The second deals specifically with the language itself. I think a number of recent, independent and foreign films have shown us that the American audience is growing more sophisticated in its ability to -- wonder of all wonders -- read subtitles. Look at Passion of the Christ -- I doubt that film lost more than a handful of viewers to its lack of spoken english. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon didn't seem to suffer from a lack of audience, certainly. Nor did Amelie. All of these, in fact, received great acclaim both from critics and at the box office here in the states, given their (Passion excepted) relatively small releases. And yet, how are we treated in this film? Snippets of Japanese at the beginning, and sparsely interspersed throughout the rest of the film. The rest, including virtually all dialogue, spoken in English -- heavily accented, even when the speakers are native english speakers, as in the case of "The Baron", who IMDB tells me was an army brat who happened to be born in Tokyo, and "Young Pumpkin", who was born in Seattle to the slightly un-asian-sounding name of Zoe Weisenbaum. "Young Chiyo"'s english sounded so heavily accented as to be coached, (i.e., she didn't speak a word of english otherwise) and even some of the Japanese spoken in the beginning (here's where my "trained ear" comes into it) sounded like IT was spoken non-natively as well! (Side note: You ever hear Japanese spoken by an East Texan? Very funny stuff!).

You want to know how it ought to be done? Go watch "The Last Samurai". That movie, in spite of Tom Cruise, was fantastic. Ok, maybe even because of Tom Cruise -- he's a whackjob, yes, but a fantastic actor. I'd just never let him near my family, is all. Anywho, all the Japanese in that film was spoken -- horror of horrors! -- in Japanese!. All the English was spoken in english. A good deal of conflict was drawn from the very conflict resulting from the language barrier, even! Wow, what a concept!

Ok, third, somewhat minor note: just when the hell did Sayuri and Pumpkin and Mameha learn to speak such good english, when they were speaking with the Americans toward the end of the film? There was no attempt at translation, no indication that the americans were speaking Japanese (also unlikely at that point, I think), nothing. Just, BAM, this geisha could speak fluent, conversant english. Whaaaaaa?

Ok, final note: the film kept pointing out that Geisha was not about sex, and was not simple prostitution. And yet the major plot device of the film involved the geisha-to-be giving her -- umm, how do I say this gently -- "flower" to the highest bidder, so she could become a full geisha. Maybe this is something against Japanese culture rather than the film itself, but that sure seems to be sex-centric to me. And kinda icky, at that.

Oh, and the book upon which the film was based? Written by Arthur Golden. Hmm. "An authentic look into immedately pre- and post-WWII Japan" indeed.

Not that this is a film review, but the movie really fell apart toward the end anyways. WWII was a 5-minute segueway, followed by interloping, boorish American soldiers in all their glory... but remember, kids, negative stereotypes are only bad if they're NOT of Americans!



Anonymous Marty said...

Great post, Ben. I agree with your thoughts about the cultural versimilitude of many Hollywood movies. However, if you think your ability to tell the ethnicity of East Asians apart by their looks is good, take the test at

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Marty said...

Oops! I meant ALL LOOK SAME. The previous link was to my blog, and I know my brothers and I don't "all look same"!

6:22 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

True story: my co-advisor on my MSEE work, who is Korean, showed me that site. I outscored him substantially. Although my discernment capabilities have diminished greatly since my time in Seattle, which seems to be asian-immigrant-central, with lots of diversity to train the pattern recognition neurons of my brain.

9:43 AM  

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