The controversy surrounding Memoirs of a Geisha‘s Chinese-as-Japanese thesping has threatened to derail this big-screen adaptation of Arthur Golden’s bestseller for months now. Rob Marshall has been on the receiving end of most of this flack, but is the man a racist or just another Hollywood sell-out? In casting Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s two female stars—the Chinese Ziyi Zhang and the Malaysian Michelle Yeoh—as geishas, Marshall chucks more coal into the bottom-line-driven fire of the Hollywood machine. Maybe it’s because I’m used to this sort of thing and have compliantly accepted over the years that a Puerto Rican playing a Mexican is preferable to, say, Marlon Brando playing Emiliano Zapata in brown-face, but I see this typecasting as a laughable transparency rather than a deliberate attempt to spread pan-Asian stereotypes. Since the dehumanizing Memoirs of a Geisha‘s view of Japanese culture isn’t designed for people familiar with the works of Mikio Naruse, Yasujirô Ozu, or Kenji Mizoguchi, but rather a mainstream crowd that fondly remembers singing “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” as children, it only makes sense that this three-ring show’s actresses hail from the only foreign film its target audience is likely to have ever seen.
“What do we know about entertaining Americans?” wonders Zhang’s character Sayuri at one point during the film, planning her return to the spotlight after the war has ravaged her ambitions. For Marshall, engaging his audience means putting on a circus. Indeed, given how pitifully this soulless hunk of exoticized garbage announces its white man’s burden, a better name for it might have been Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Like some white hunter discovering a lost kingdom after having made his way through a tropical rain forest (somewhere there’s a picture of the film’s awe-struck crew peering through a bonsai tree), Marshall pumps the cultural signifiers a Japanese director might take for granted with wide-eyed pomp and circumstance. (If you compare the way Naruse shoots an abacus in When a Woman Ascends a Stairs with the way Marshall photographs the big, bad, perpetually-smoking “landlady” O-kami—a preposterous Miss Scarlet caricature played by Kaori Momoi—sliding the beads of her abacus back and forth, the film’s outsider-looking-in affliction becomes especially clear.)
Marshall doesn’t hype the soul of Japan, only its artifice. He isn’t obsessed with the psychological toil of his female characters (that devastating sense of resignation Mizoguchi and Naruse understood so well), only the flamboyancy of their trade. To Marshall, the geisha is less a woman than a performance artist, and though Zhang’s runway-style dance number in the film is more dazzling than anything in the director’s insipid Chicago, it means nothing emotionally. The film’s swooping aesthetic (no cherry blossom or stepping stone is safe from its exoticizing gaze) tents the canned intrigue of the story’s circus burlesque. Marshall is the ringleader, prancing around his back-lot vision of Japan and allowing his audience to gawk at the freakitude of Sayuri’s blue eyes (a white-identifiable, sans-context conceit that exists to stress some hoary notion that she is like water, and as such is able to wash away earth and put out fire—or something ridiculous to that effect) and a gorgeous Gong Li jumping like a lioness through hoops of fire and scratching those who threaten her place on the geisha food chain. Given the film’s thin social perspective and parade of cardboard villainy, after a while it all comes to strangely resemble a Walt Disney animation.