I said I was tired of this topic and then Dirk pointed me to this scathing review. Andrew Lee gets at what I have been trying to say all along. The stereotyping and the blatant cultural inaccuracy is what bothers me more than anything else.
Early on in the production of the film it was decided that the traditional white-face make-up of the geisha would be offputting for American audiences. Instead we are presented with a toned-down, westernised geisha – Sayuri even has blue eyes. Geisha hairstyles are lost too, and replaced with long loose hair and styles that are more reminiscent of those seen in Chinese films also starring Zhang, Li and Yeoh.
In one of the central scenes of the film, a dance starring Zhang, any pretensions to cultural accuracy go right out of the window. It was obviously decided that geisha dances – which in reality are slow, graceful affairs – were not visually interesting enough for audiences used to seeing Zhang flying among the bamboo. So what we end up with is a mish-mash of imagery, as the filmmakers opt to mix theatrical kabuki-style dancing with Hollywood razzamatazz. Wearing a wig of long, flowing black hair reminiscent of women in Chinese ghost stories, Zhang dances dramatically while balancing on eight-inch platform shoes and holding an umbrella in a blizzard of fake snow. A spotlight shines down and koto drummers dictate the frenetic beat – the effect is much closer to Chicago than anything in the geisha world. To make matters worse, the costume designer has dressed Zhang in shoes worn by a tayu for her coming-out ceremony, which will surely upset many geisha aficionados.
In the end, all the cultures involved with this film come off badly. A Japanese cultural symbol has been thoroughly misrepresented – so much so that the film is simply titled Sayuri in Japan, shrewdly omitting the word “geisha”. Chinese actresses are taking a beating from their own countrymen, accused of treachery. And the American production is grist to the mill of those who accuse the US of insensitivity to any culture but its own.
Still wanna go see this film?
Speaking to journalists in Tokyo before the film’s premiere, Marshall said: “I think there is a misconception about what a geisha is across the world, certainly in the western world. One of the joys of this movie was to clarify what a geisha is.”
That comment encapsulates for me everything that is wrong with Hollywood.
Vote with your wallet. Do not pay to see this film in a theater. Discourage your friends from paying to see this dreck. If you must view it, find it on your local Intarweb.
FT.com / Home Asia – Japan through Hollywood’s distorting lens