Not exactly breaking news but I thought I’ll blogged on it anyway. China has banned the film Memoirs of a Geisha because the principal actresses are 3 well-known Chinese - Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and Malaysian Michelle Yeoh - playing the roles of Japanese geishas.
Unfortunately there has been a mistaken belief among many Chinese that geishas are nothing more than high class prostitutes. Add on to this misconception the already iffy Chinese-Japanese relationship today, that has not been helped at all by Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi’s recalcitrant insistence on worshipping at the Yasukuni war shrine, the idea (or film) of 3 Chinese women in the roles of Japanese ‘prostitutes’ may be just too much for some Chinese.
Many Chinese still recall with hatred and trauma the humiliating memories of WWII's horrendous Japanese war crimes against the Chinese people, including and especially Chinese women. The Chinese government fears there could well be an ugly backlash if the film is shown. Already, Zhang Ziyi has been resoundingly condemned by some Chinese who couldn’t stand the thought of a Chinese woman playing the part of a … eh … Japanese ‘prostitute’.
An American blogger on Chinese affairs blandly commented that Chinese always get agitated when it comes to anything Japanese, but obviously he wasn’t aware that China’s renown director Zhang Yimou selected Takeshi Kaneshiro to play the role of the ‘hero’ in House of Flying Daggers, which also starred Zhang Ziyi. The film had been well received by Chinese with no indication of any acrimony towards Takeshi Kaneshiro. In some parts of that film, there were in fact rather hot sizzling scenes when Zhang Ziyi engaged in love escapades with her 'hero'. Thus the blogger's comment, though typically biased like most American bloggers on China and Chinese affairs, had been ill informed.
And in the 1972 Chinese film The Water Margin, the producers, Shaw Brothers, had the daring to engage two of Japan’s finest actors, Tamba Tetsuro and Toshio Kurosawa, to play leading roles in the classic Chinese saga. Giving the honour to two Japanese to act as legendary Chinese heros could, one would have thought, seem rather 'unpatriotic' but the Chinese audience enjoyed the film without any racist comments.
No, the controversy surrounding Memoirs of a Geisha has not been about Chinese actresses playing Japanese characters, or vice versa. It’s the specific nature of the role, that of portraying themsleves as geishas, evoking a perception, a wrong one but nonetheless still a perception of hatred, that Chinese women will 'once again' be humiliatingly abused for the sexual gratification of Japanese men a la WWII.
Meanwhile, in Japan, some Japanese have been rather pissed that the film makers had selected 3 Chinese actresses to play the role of the Japanese geishas, principal characters in Arthur Golden best-selling novel of the same name. Undoubtedly it is a film of international standards.
Japanese national pride and confidence have been severely shaken by the realisation that Chinese, and not Japanese, actresses have been considered worthy of a uniquely Japanese role. But they quickly masked any suggestion of their real feelings by countering that the film has shown a poor imitation of authentic Japanese culture. Ah, so desu ne!