Zhang Ziyi the Geisha

Many Chinese and Japanese are angered that Zhang Ziyi has chosen to play the part of a Japanese Geisha in the movie Adaptation of Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha”.

I think it’s stupid for Zhang to do this role, for a few reasons which may be different from the chatroom outrage:

  • She has already done a good job avoiding the promiscuous/submissive asian woman western stereotypes. Actresses like Lucy Liu, who were able to make some quick cash by milking this sterotype, are now finding it difficult to break out of the typecast. Zhang already had a big name; this type of role is not moving her in the direction she probably wants to go. Zhang is setting back asian actresses in Holywood by taking this role.
  • She is not Japanese. I cringe every time I see Yul Brynner as the King of Siam. There are plenty of qualified Japanese actresses. The story already lacks credibility by virtue of being written by a western man, so you would expect them to attempt to bolster their credibility by getting at least a *few* of the details right. Or is the problem that no Japanese would agree to do the movie?
  • The story is very weak. “Japanese girl makes lots of friends and learns how to please rich men; settles down with a rich sponsor”. This was hackneyed when Madame Butterfly did it. It’s a mass-market vehicle written by a western guy to cater to western stereotypes, with little artistic value. I don’t see it as a step forward to go from the romance in Flying Daggers to this one-dimensional cartoon.
  • You don’t need a big name for this movie. The reason that westerners pay money to watch these sterotypical movies like “Chinese Box” are precisely because of the fantasy of “different” or “exotic”. This is why Lucy Liu couldn’t play this part, and I believe Zhang is also too well-known to get maximum interest. A vehicle like this would be a good way to elevate a lesser-known actress. Audiences go to identify with the experience of discovering or revealing something that is not commonly know, and would tend to project their feelings of “discovering” for the character onto the actress, and likely give her more of a boost that a bigger name would get.

Movie Review: I Heart Huckabees

Three years ago, I wrote “if a plot-segment has to jump out and grab the audience by the throat and scream “Look at me! I’m a moral dilemma!”, it is probably not much of one.”

I Heart Huckabees” begins by introducing a man gripped by existential crisis. He seeks the services of an existential detective, and soon gets wrapped up with several other people on intertwining journeys of self-discovery. There were some memorable characters, and parts where I laughed out loud, but overall I found the movie quite disappointing.

The movie pokes fun at western philosophy and modern therapy, but in a rather obvious and gratuitous way. The sequence of scenes touches on each of the big debates of existentialism as if the screen writer has just finished reading his undergraduate textbook and is writing a scene per chapter. “Everything Matters”, “Nothing Matters”, presented in exactly this juxtaposition, as if the viewer would be too stupid to figure this out if it were any more subtle. Every single such irony is paraded nakedly and beat in until you can be sure that nobody in the audience will miss the profundity.

The best stories hide their themes inside a plot that is equally enjoyable to people with or without sensitivity to the theme.Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound”, is a perfect example of this. Stoppard’s play also pokes fun at existentialist crises in the context of a detective story, and would probably be enjoyable to the people who hated “I heart huckabees”.

Movie Review: Lost in Translation

Lost In Translation has Bill Murray as a Japandering American has-been going through a midlife crisis who has a brief fling with a fresh-faced young American girl while both of them are stuck in Japan and avoiding their spouses.

It didn’t take me long to see why this movie was such a hit with the critics. On the surface, it’s a complete ripoff of American Beauty. A show about a middle-aged guy who discovers that he can still be interesting to a hot young girl, hang out with the dope-smoking crowd, and generally have his cake and eat it too; is sure to be a hit with movie critics who tend to identify with Murray/Spacey’s characters. A number of sub-themes seemed to be ripped from American Beauty, too. Lost In Translation has the additional advantage of playing heavily on western fantasies and clichesabout oriental sexuality, nearly as blatantly as Jeremy Irons in Chinese Box.

On the other hand, once I got past the crass critic-fishing techniques, I discovered that there was more to this film than formula. For starters, the music was fantastic. And the composition, tone, and expressiveness of the cinematic technique was really good. There was not a single jarring or incongruous scene. Even the obligatory club shots, so in-your-face in movies like Blade or Matrix, were smooth and subtle, with room for emotion.

The events of the film take place in Japan, so they are different, but at the same time very normal. The characters react and behave believably, and nothing happens that could be considered to be incredible or extraordinary. To some, this could seem to be boring or slow-paced. However, the tension in the film is provided by the developing relationship between the two main characters. The two characters dance delicately around their situation, and the true meaning of their hearts is never known or expressed definitively. But the uncertain nature of the relationship is juxtaposed by the magnitude of its potential consequences, both brutal and magnificent. The drama never happens, but the real drama is in what might happen. It was a masterful and impactful rendition of an experience that rarely gets captured properly on film.

The focus on the subtle emotional interplay of an otherwise mundane situation, wrapped in the context of being displaced in a new and foreignlocation, reminded me a bit of the Malcom McLaren “Paris” emotionalized recollections. So I was not surprised to find that Sofia Coppola intended Lost In Translation to capture some of her memories of working in Tokyo when younger. I don’t know how accurately it captures her memories, but it certainly reminds me of how I would be remembering something if I was remembering that.

There were tons of interesting cinematic devices listed. A couple mentions. Long stretches being unable to understand anything, surrounded by thousands of voices but all unintelligible,shifting between local and global focus, at the same time isolated and crowded. Another, the focus on Bill Murray’s tired, drooping face — everything pointed down, looking in mirrors, a reminder of his reality and the weight of his age — this was used very effectively to highlight his conflicted approach to the developing relationship.