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.