Asia-Pacific, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

CHINA: ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Lost in Political Din

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Feb 7 2006 (IPS) - When the state-run newspaper ‘Beijing Times’ bemoaned the cancelled release of Hollywood blockbuster ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ this month, it was a rare romantic take on a film that has stirred more political sentiment here than any propaganda-infused production from China’s state-run film studios.

“The film market before Valentine’s Day would be so void without the ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’,” lamented the paper. “There are not enough new releases of worthy love stories to make Lovers’ Day count,” it said.

Love is certainly one factor that many who had commented publicly on the film here tended to overlook. From outraged bloggers to stiff-lipped censors, the common refrain on the Hollywood version of Arthur Golden’s best-selling book has been that it casts some of China’s most famous actresses in the role of high-class Japanese prostitutes.

Fearing that the film could provoke public anger and further inflame already rampant anti-Japanese feeling, Chinese film censors cancelled the film’s planned general release this month without much explanation. While government officials at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television have publicly denied the ban, Beijing Times reported that the film’s release has been “suspended indefinitely”.

The highly stylised production from director Bob Marshall features China’s rising film star Zhang Ziyi as virgin prey for Japanese businessmen, along with leading film lady Gong Li and Malaysia- born Chinese actress Michelle Yeoh, portraying one of Japan’s most enigmatic cultural icons – the geishas of Gion.

The ban of the ‘Memoirs” happens to be one of these rare points of convergence of opinion between the general public and China’s arbiters of taste.

Orchestrated or not, many opinions posted on the web favoured a ban. “We place our hope on the propaganda bureau, we call upon them to stop the release of this shameful production,” read one of many appeals by angered netizens.

Ahead of the ban, bloggers had heaped venom on Zhang Ziyi for accepting the role of the beautiful geisha Sayuri without considering Chinese national pride. “Sleeping with a Japanese man for money is disgusting. She humiliated all Chinese people,” suggested one. Although Zhang won a Golden Globe nomination for her role in the “Memoirs’, she was called a “shameful traitor” who deserved nothing better than to be “hacked to death”.

One of the most discussed risqué scenes in the film features Sayuri kissing her love interest played by Japanese actor Ken Watanabe. Another shows Sayuri losing her virginity to a Japanese man who had bid the highest price for it.

The decision to cancel the premiere of a film, which despite being produced in Hollywood, has been touted as a pan-Asian collaboration, comes after a year of boiling hostilities between Tokyo and Beijing. The chill affecting diplomatic ties and political climate has ultimately managed to filter through to public opinion and cultural exchanges.

The ban comes ten months after violent anti-Japanese protests erupted across China, causing volatile relations between East Asia’s two most important nations, to plunge to their lowest point in decades.

In reportedly government-orchestrated rampages on Japanese businesses and consular buildings in Chinese cities, people protested the publication in Japan of a revisionist history textbook that glossed over the country’s wartime atrocities.

The anti-Japanese protests were followed by a series of diplomatic snubs and spats between Tokyo and Beijing over drilling rights in the oil-rich East China Sea. In December last year, China stated it would support greater participation of African countries in the United Nations rather than an expansion of the Security Council, where Tokyo has sought a seat.

Also in December, in a very public display of diplomatic anger, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refused to meet his Japanese counterpart Junichiro Koizumi on the sidelines of the first “East Asian summit” in Kuala Lumpur. Officially, Chinese and Japanese top leaders have not met since 2001 when Koizumi began annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, where Japan’s fallen soldiers and war criminals of World War II are buried.

China says Japan has not done enough to atone for its wartime atrocities. The war launched by Japan’s militarist leaders killed an estimated 20 million Chinese. During the ‘Rape of Nanjing’ in 1937-38, some 300,000 civilians were murdered and some 20,000 women raped, according to Chinese figures.

So raw is the memory of Japan’s use of sex slaves during the war that when in 2003 Chinese media reported that 400 Japanese tourists had hired 500 Chinese prostitutes for a prolonged orgy in the southern city of Zhuhai, the country erupted in fury.

Nationalist outrage, sparked by the casting of China’s most popular female stars in the ‘Memoirs’ has drowned the delicate debate about what a Japanese geisha signifies.

In Chinese, the word translates as ‘yiji’ (arty prostitute), but the distributors of the film had cleverly substituted the character (ideogram) for prostitute with another one, which means “skilful dancer”. Yet, emphasising that geishas were artists who mastered exquisite Japanese traditions like tea ceremony, ikebana and poetry in order to entertain men has not helped the controversy abate.

Even Chinese film luminaries, like award-winning director Chen Kaige, had criticised the choice of Chinese actresses for the roles of Japanese geishas. “Chinese women cannot play geishas,” the director was quoted as saying by the media. “This is an ancient tradition of the Japanese culture. The way they walk, hold the fan, smile, look at other people. In order to make these gestures and face expressions look right, you have to grow up in Japan. But probably American producers do not care.”

The national insult perceived by the Chinese public in the casting choices has also obscured a larger conflict between art and politics – one, which Chinese intellectuals insist should not be forgotten in a country where art continues to be subjugated by ideology.

“Art should be above national politics,” argues female writer Hong Ying. “Zhang Ziyi is an actor. Actors can act anybody. That is what they do. If we object to a Chinese actress acting a Japanese, it would be like saying Americans can’t act English people and vice versa, or that English TV versions of Tolstoy works only with Russian actors. There wouldn’t be a film or TV industry if that were the case.”

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