Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Boycott Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha

I am trying to imagine what will draw a person to want to see Rob Marshall's film, Memoirs of a Geisha, opening December 23 nationwide. I want to write my thoughts about such films and ask you to boycott this film, ask everyone you know to boycott this film, and boycott future films of the same nature. Obviously, the film has not yet opened and I have not seen it, so if that's enough for you to stop reading now---so be it. Have a nice day. But I know enough about the history of Asians represented in American films and the making of this particular film to feel good about asking you to spend your holiday dollar elsewhere.

I was around sixteen when Sixteen Candles came out---Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, and of course that humiliating and racist character Long Duc Dong, whose stupid antics made my whole body get hot with embarrassment each time he was on screen. I didn't know it then, but it was one of the first racist films I saw. Of course there is a litany of racist films before that---going back to the Charlie Chan era, the questionable Pink Panther sidekick, Lost in Translation---the list of Hollywood's transgressions is endless. Asian males have been depicted as duplicitous, manipulative, untrustworthy, and easily dismissed. The depiction of Asian women is similarly narrow and troublesome.

The popularity of Arthur Golden's book will surely attract some moviegoers--those who "want to see if the movie is different than the book" or those who think "I wanted to read the book but didn't, so I'll see the movie." But if you've read the book, you're certainly among those who know the movie is hardly ever (if ever) better than the book, right?

But if you need more reasons to believe in a boycott, try these:

1. The main inspiration for the book, Mineko Iwasaki, sued Arthur Golden (the author of the book) for revealing her identity and for misrepresenting her accounts of geisha life. Click here to read a good article from the Far East Economic Review about Iwasaki's feelings about the book.

2. None of the female lead actresses are Japanese. They are Chinese and Malaysian. (Just in case you forgot---these are different countries with different languages). It’s 2005, people---let us remember that not all African-Americans look alike nor do all Asian-Americans. They never have.

3. In the horrible poster for the film, Ziyang's eyes are bright blue--as if having Spielberg, Marshall, and Golden behind the making of the film aren't enough of an appropriation.

4. There are many, many other places to learn about Geisha culture (much less other countries in Asia) through film. Seeing this film is not "educating yourself." It is miseducating yourself. It is Hollywood to the fullest extent it can be. For starters on Asian Amercan Film, visit here. Or, see some of the early work by the exciting new generation of filmmakers such as Justin Lin, Eric Byler, Gurinder Chadha, or Alice Wu. You may also want to simply read Iwasaki's own book, Geisha, A Life.

I'm sure some people will suggest "it's only entertainment" and that "it's a good story" or other naive things like this. Please. A puppet show is entertainment. Films like this cost millions of dollars and reach millions of impressionable people. It's hard to explain the connections between these mainstream, dangerous films and tragic, sociopolitical nightmares such as the illegal incarcerations of people like James Yee or Wen Ho Lee. That's another issue altogether, I suppose. But the idea is the same---spread to the masses via Spielberg and Marshall this time---Asians are exotic, suspicious, and docile. IF the film is none of these things, I will gladly eat my words and take small solace that a large scale film with suspect beginnings actually depicts Japanese culture in a non-stereotypical fashion. But I won't pay to see it, that's for sure. Maybe I'll do what Bao Phi did and see it another way---sneak in, borrow it from somebody who rents it---but most likely I will have absolutely nothing to do with it. There's no way I'm giving a cent to another film like this. I hope you'll consider joining me. I hope this film tanks.

If you've read this far, thanks for your time. If I am preaching to the choir, I hope you've enjoyed the reading. Consider sending this (or an email of your own) to some of your "non-choir" friends and family. Just food for thought as we try to keep things moving forward, despite the machine's effort against such progress.


Ji In said...

I'm with you on this! Normally, I run to the box office to support APA filmmakers & actors -- in worthy films -- but this movie is a car crash of outright ignorance in action. I've ranted against this film before on my blog, too, and I'm as turned off by it now as I was when I first heard about it.

barbara jane said...

well said, lee. thank you for this.

Lee Herrick said...

thanks for your words, ji-in and barbara!

Pris said...

I'd heard about the movie, but had read nothing about the making of it or any of the background information you provided here. Thanks. Excellent post.

Michael Parker said...

Well, I'm posting with my head between my knees, as I wrote a post a couple of months ago (before I had even heard of any controversy)that I was eager to see my favorite actors from Crouching Tiger back on the screen again in this lavish-looking film. Your explanations do make sense to me. I will have to read more on this. Thanks for this.

Lee Herrick said...

I like those actors and actresses, too, although I'm not as impressed with Ziyang as some people are. Certain depictions just bother me, that's all. Hope all's well--

Anonymous said...

I simply cannot believe that you (and all of these posters too!) would actually slam the film and call for boycotts without EVER SEEING THE FILM! This is exactly the kind of closed-minded activism that deligitimizes Asian Americans and the community. It's like boycotting a book before you've even read it. Think about it. How can one garner credibility this way? Do you think anyone will listen to you (besides the other like-minded closed-minded people who have posted here in the name of activism)? Is this "activism" or just downright ignorance? I think it's the latter. If the NYT did an article on this movie without even seeing it, what would all of you people say? To see smart people act ignorantly is really terrible.

Lee Herrick said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lee Herrick said...

Who posted this, Rob Marshall?

Don't talk to me about deligitimizing a thing---until you write me about some of the issues (political, economic, judicial, or otherwise) you actually believe the Asian American community was correct in.

Do you value any of the four points I mentioned in favor of disliking the idea of the film itself? Or are you just hung up on the obvious (that the film is not even released yet, so how dare someone critique it)? You can do better.

If you read my post closely you will find two areas where I discuss the fact that I haven't seen it and that I am well aware of the obvious problems this causes. But it's not rocket science here...there is a lot of writing on the wall on this one, anonymous.

I hesitate to even comment further to someone who posts anonymously, so if you want/care for a continued discussion of this issue, you'll need to give me your name/identity/website. Otherwise I'll leave your post up just because I like dissent in and of itself, as you might have supposed. But I won't keep exchanging ideas with someone hiding behind a curtain.

Take care of yourself.

Nicole said...


Looks like you had a hit and run.

I’ll admit that reading your post only heightens my curiosity about the film. Is it really an accurate depiction? If not, why? How? How does the film differ from Iwasaki’s book? These questions can only be answered by watching the film which of course defeats your intent for writing the post. However, I would not have thought of the film in this way had I not read your post.

To anonymous-

Leaving a hostile post without revealing your identity really crushes your credibility. You don’t have to consider Lee’s argument concrete. Just consider it.

feyla m said...

I'm currently at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and came accross your post while searching, actually, for people boycotting this film. I'm working on a piece, that right now is focusing on the homogenization of Asian people in America (obviously this film being a key example)- But would like to move further. There's another movie coming out called "New World" once again, about the dashing John Smith and the innocent timid Native woman- that's right, Pocahontas- Obviously there are many things wrong with the John Smith Pocahontas story in general- But I think it's key to point out first and foremost- that American media has done it again-

And cast a peruvian (not even an indigenous peruvian) woman as the Northeastern Native American woman, Pocahontas...

Anyway, I thought I'd throw that out there and tell you that I appreciate your post and can completely understand how and why the movie can be boycotted without even seeing it-

Annonymous- Know how people can know that this movie is a mis-representation?

BECAUSE THE MAIN CHARACTER IS CHINESE (blatently so) WHEN SHE SHOULD BE JAPANESE. I think that's reason enough right there

jose said...

I wasn't really planning on watching this film, so I can't really say I'm boycotting. But while I find arguments 1, 3, and 4 persuasive, I'm not sure I buy argument 2. I might be more inclined to buy it if Japanese actors were playing Chinese characters (given both countries' mutual histories). Even so, argument 2 would seem to imply a really onerous restriction on what sort of roles actors can play. Are you saying that only Japanese actors can play Japanese characters, only Chinese actors can play Chinese characters, only New Zealander actors can play New Zealander roles, etc.? But isn't acting an art which, by definition, involves pretending to be someone you are not? I think there are enormous possibilities for understanding in letting actors inhabit characters of ethnicities different from their own. My fear is that argument 2 has the potential to have the effect of isolationism, and, when taken to the extreme, will lead to audiences being interested in watching and actors acting in movies they can "identify" with, as opposed to broadening their horizons and fostering dialogue between cultures. Sorry if I seem ignorant, but that's how I feel.

Lee Herrick said...

Feyla--Right on. I'll keep my eye out for "New World"---I can already imagine what kind of film that would be.

Jose--Thanks for your thoughtful response. It has received tepid reviews (Ebert, among other critics, gave it thoumbs down) thus far.

You make a good point. I do not think only New Zealanders should play New Zealanders, etc. Of course not. In Geisha's case, however, it is merely one of many problematic aspects of the film.

I'm not sure if this is perfectly analogous---but part of my position could be understood like this: imagine a New Zealander's tradition being misrepresented on screen in a film directed by a Chinese director, producer, and production company---the Chinese director casts the main actors from a country (let us imagine) with a history of violence against New Zealand. They change the New Zealander's appearance---and perhaps most telling...the New Zealander whose life is being distorted has sued the Chinese director for various reasons.

Of course for this analogy to work you would have to list dozens and dozens of films where the very same damage/misrepresentation/ distortion has occured for decades. In other words, this is far from the first time.

Does it have to be a Japanese actor? Probably not (Gurinder Chadha, after all, has singed on to direct a new version of a highly acclaimed South Korean romantic comedy). But all things considered, would a Japanese protagonist have given the film an ounce of credibility? I think so.

Your response is far from ignorant...it's a fair question (I hope I responded reasonably).


Lisa said...

Hey, I definitely agree with you! Thanks for a great post!