Sunday, June 18, 2006

Floating away

Despite its worthy intentions, is Memoirs of a Geisha a glorified chick flick? I ask because until my date last night indicated a preference for it, I had marked it down as one not to see. Despite the obvious brilliance of director Rob Marshall (whose Chicago was electrifying), the film is curiously flat, although mostly watchable, thanks to the moody, evocative cinematography. The action progresses through the elements -- at first drenched in rain, then building up to the fire of passion and finally resolving amid cherry blossoms in the spring air.

But I subsided into a fitful doze round about the middle; it is just too long and the voice-over of the memoirist too languid, the Desperate Housewives narrator on Valium. The movie eschews the vivid possibilities in the merciless training of the geisha, the artist of the floating world, for a protracted love story, shades of Madame Butterfly. Because of this soft-pedalling, the engineering of female submission is given a kind of cultural pass. No doubt Marshall wanted to tell the story without passing judgement, but that has created a certain detachment from its subject.

Plus points for set design (pre-war Japan) and wonderful lighting. Minus points for the most jarring element: supposedly Japanese characters -- although Chinese actors take two or three leading roles -- speaking English, ranging from almost unintelligible to that artificial-sounding Americanese dubbed on to non-English films. I suppose getting the Chinese cast members to speak Japanese might have been a bit difficult, but then again, hiring box office-friendly Zhang Ziyi and Li Gong was a commercial decision and rather gutless.


Blogger Wyndham said...

* A commercial decision and rather gutless*

Er, how so?

10:53 AM  
Blogger DavetheF said...

I'm sure the movie would have survived the hiring of Japanese actors for these pivotal roles. Whose culture is it anyway?

8:39 PM  
Blogger Wyndham said...

Since when has Hollywood ever operated in a moral way - and why should it - as a business it's in the line of making as much money as possible. It's an American film intended for an American audience - as is the book. The ethnicity of the actors involved is utterly irrelevent to the "artistic" process.

10:52 AM  
Blogger DavetheF said...

It's not a moral question at all. It's a question of authenticity and I will give you an exact parallel: feature films about the struggles of black people in pre- and post-apartheid South Africa had until recently always required the use of one or two African-American actors, usually B list (with the exception of Denzel Washington in the Biko role). Try as they might, they do not have the ring of authenticity in these roles. I find it significant that the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, which has done creditably in foreign markets, featured an entirely homegrown cast and oozed conviction.

Had Japanese actors filled the main Geisha roles in Memoirs, I suspect I might not have nodded off in the middle. I would suggest that this kind of film is a long way down the commercial spectrum that is headed by sequels and remakes. There is a balance to be struck between artistic and commercial considerations, yes, and I am saying the film could have afforded to use less well known Japanese actors in these roles with no deleterious impact on the box office.

Finally, I don't care that it was made for an American audience. I paid my money to see it, the foreign take is very important to the bean counters, and I will critique it on my terms, not Hollywood's.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Wyndham said...

Your logic is impeccable, Dave, but Tsotsi is the kind of movie that is honoured by the American Academy of Film as a kind of penance for the sleepless nights they spend watching their stock-options soar because they make talking pictures featuring bankable stars readily identifiable right across the world.

10:42 PM  

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