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Memoirs of a Geisha

The politics of racial casting

Memoirs of a Geisha

So, what's race gotta do with it? Well, everything. And exactly how far is "Memoirs of a Geisha" situated from "The World of Suzy Wong?" Pretty close.

"The World of Suzy Wong" is a 1960 American movie adapted from a novel written by a Caucasian male writer (Richard Mason). Directed by a Caucasian male director (Richard Quine), the movie traces the mysterious and mythical private life of an Asian prostitute and her love affair with a man.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" is a 2005 American movie adapted from a novel written by a Caucasian male writer (Arthur Golden). Directed by a Caucasian male director, the movie traces the mysterious and mythical private lives of three Asian prostitutes and their love affairs with men.

Luckily, the men have changed from Caucasian male to Asian male this time - and the Asian male is born into America cinema.

Race, nationality, gender, sexuality, are forever the hot-button topics in popular culture, an art form supposedly created for the class-free new world of democracy during the turn of the 20th century.

The recent controversy over the decision to cast three Chinese stars - Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh - as the three central characters in the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha" produced by Steven Spielberg causes the latest hoopla in cinematic international or interracial casting.

While the Japanese public have expressed discontent over the movie director Rob Marshall' decision to pass over all Japanese actresses and choose three Chinese stars to portray the three Japanese Geishas in the movie, some audiences in China have criticized and labeled actress Zhang Ziyi as a "national traitor" for her back-to-back portrayal of Japanese characters in "The Princess Racoon" and "Memoirs of a Geisha." The hostility between China and Japan since World War II certainly does not help when any Japanese or Chinese actor appear in the other nation's movies.

While director Marshall has claimed that he chose the three Chinese actresses to portray the three main Geisha roles in "Memoirs of a Geisha" based "purely on the actresses' ability and their suitability to the roles," it's blatantly obvious to the public that Marshall's casting decision is based on the three Chinese stars' bankable prowess rather than their "suitability."

While Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh are currently the three most powerful Asian female stars in the world right now, Japan has thus far failed to produced an internationally recognized female star. The logic does not flow that no Japanese actress in the world is capable of portraying the three Geisha roles better than Zhang, Gong and Yeoh - all three of them are unversed in Japanese culture, not to mention the highly specialized art form of geisha culture.

With the pedigree of Steven Spielberg and Rob Marshall of the Oscar-winning "Chicago" fame, the anxiously anticipated "Memoirs of a Geisha" was slowly becoming the second cinematic Messiah since the landmark "The Last Emperor" two decades ago. However, as director Marshall's biased casting became so naked to the public, "Memoirs of a Geisha" is edging the other way, towards the second "The World of Suzy Wong," a landmark disgrace rather than celebration of Asian culture.

Taiwan's local media jeered at the movie, calling it "eye candy for Americans" and "a confused mixed-race movie" because "director Marshall obviously thinks all Asians look alike anyway and there is no difference between a Chinese and a Japanese actor to him."

Despite all these criticisms and counterattacks, the controversy surrounding "Memoirs of a Geisha" seems overheated in the end. International casting and interracial casting are decidedly of extreme different natures. It's true that Marshall has snubbed all Japanese actresses in favor of three Chinese international female superstars. However, in the world of mainstream Hollywood business, the common practice of casting a bankable star instead of a more suitable and honed actor is hardly a secret.

Chinese American actress Lucy Liu, who is born and raised up in the Queens borough of New York City, was widely criticized by the non-Chinese Asian-American groups for taking the role of the Japanese gangster queen O-Ren Ishii in Quentin Tarantino's blockbuster "Kill Bill" series. In an interview with the New York Times, Liu defended her choice by stating: "it's hard enough for an Asian actor to find good roles in Hollywood. It's unfair to criticize me for portraying a Japanese character simply because I am Chinese. It's very limiting for the actors. I think I should be allowed to portray Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese or even an Italian in movies."

Indeed, international casting among Caucasian actors has never been an issue. Nicole Kidman, an Australia born actress and the current reigning goddess in Hollywood, has portrayed Caucasian characters of numerous nationalities with her long body of work including "Batman Forever" (American comic book character), "The Portrait of a Lady" (19th century American), "Moulin Rouge" (French character in an English-language movie) "The Hours" (British famed writer) and "Cold Mountain" (American lady during the Civil War), and "The Interpreter" (blond Caucasian born and raised in South Africa).

As Hollywood has been the movie center of the world for more than a century, importing non-American talents into Hollywood to portray roles of different nationalities and race has never been news. Greta Garbo, the Sweden born actress, took the title of Hollywood's reigning queen from the 1920's to

Updated : 2021-12-05 11:32 GMT+08:00