Trouble in the tea house

A Californian location and Chinese stars: welcome to Rob Marshall's vision of Japanese geishas
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The Independent Culture

The Mandarin Oriental hotel, deep in the heart of London's Knightsbridge, is an entirely apt setting to meet the personnel behind Memoirs of a Geisha. Not least because the building and its pick'n'mix approach to the Far East bears some resemblance to this lavish film adaptation of Arthur Golden's 1997 novel (even if the management's boast of "subtle, discreet and observant" service does not). Manhandling centuries of ancient Japanese tradition in the way that only Hollywood studios know how, the film's evident indifference to Asian cultural diversity is such that it ought to have the catch-all word "oriental" in its title, too.

Set in 1930s Kyoto, this fable of a young geisha's rise through the ranks of her closed world has already triggered consternation in Japan because none of the three lead actresses hails from there. Both Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, who respectively play the rival geishas Sayuri and Hatsumomo, are from China, and Michelle Yeoh, who starred with Zhang in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and here plays her mentor Mameha, was born in Malaysia. "In Asia, we have played Koreans or Japanese and we constantly do this," says Yeoh. "We do not question this; we accept it." Yet to some, the rather myopic "melting-pot" image of the continent is an indication of the way Hollywood views the world outside America.

Speaking at a symposium on Asian values at Japan's Kobe University, Chinese director Chen Kaige - who has shot three films with Gong Li including Farewell My Concubine - criticized director Rob Marshall's approach to casting. "Geisha is a centuries-old Japanese tradition and cannot possibly be portrayed by Chinese actresses," he said. "Every action you make, how you walk, how you use a Japanese fan, how you treat people and what kind of facial expressions you have when you talk is going to be expressed based on your Japanese cultural sophistication... for Hollywood, however, this does not matter. For them, there is no difference between Japanese and Chinese."

Marshall, who previously steered the film version of the musical Chicago to a surprise Best Picture Oscar in 2003, vehemently denies this. "That's not true. Of course, there's a great difference. Listen, I spent how much time with Japanese and Chinese actors? I certainly know the difference. I was speaking to a Japanese interpreter and a Chinese interpreter at the exact same time, so it was very clear to me there's a difference!" The 45-year-old Wisconsin native claims to have followed "a very simple philosophy" when it came to casting: choose the best person for the role. "That's it," he shrugs, before folding his arms defensively. Just as he does regarding the fact that the film eschews the use of subtitled Japanese in favour of English, Marshall argues that Memoirs of a Geisha comes out of a certain Hollywood tradition. It's one that allows for an Egyptian-born Omar Sharif to play an English-speaking Russian in Dr Zhivago, for example. "To me, artists transcend culture," says Marshall, rather pompously.

Undoubtedly, the fact that China has a surfeit of talented - and internationally renowned - actresses in comparison to Japan right now backs up Marshall's casting decisions. Yet this does not seem to have placated some, particularly in China, where nationalist sentiment is currently on the rise. After the Tokyo world premiere in late November, websites were deluged with hate mails, many of which were aimed at the film's star. "Zhang is a shameless prostitute," said one posting. "She should be deprived of Chinese citizenship."

Much of this can be attributed to the frequent misinterpretation of geisha as meaning a call girl, coupled with the fact that in a conservative country like China, a famous actress playing such a role (particularly in a fierce rival country like Japan) is considered wholly unacceptable. "That's foolish," Marshall retorts. "They're actors. Actors should be able to play anything - they're not really these people. People get very confused about what acting is."

As for what a geisha is, according to Marshall, outside of Japan "there's nothing to compare" them to. Neither courtesan nor concubine, the book describes them as "the wives of nightfall"; highly articulate women, they are trained in the arts of song and dance and courted by wealthy tycoons looking for status symbols to impress their coterie of colleagues.

While the film makes a decent attempt to debunk the myth surrounding the geisha, one has to ask if the mystery would be better left unsolved. When the book was published, it perturbed elder Japanese readers by revealing that a geisha's virginity was once sold to the highest bidder. Yet Marshall claims he is not out to explain every nuance of the geisha. "I never really set out to make a documentary-style version of this world," he says. "It really is a fiction."

With the secret life of the geisha used as a mere backdrop to the emotional journey of Sayuri, as she falls for a kindly businessman known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), it's evident that despite Marshall's two years of research, he has been selective in his approach. As the film's choreographer, John Deluca notes, "Rob wanted us to know every single fact, every bit of the tradition, and then throw it away." This is evident in the dance practised by Sayuri, an amalgam of moves that does not correlate to any of the specific - and distinctly different - styles practised in the five geisha districts in Kyoto. "To them it may come out a bit blurred," says Deluca, "but I needed my freedom. I just knew I didn't want to be penned into one."

As with Golden's intrusion into a world in which he was an outsider, there's something quite distasteful about a Hollywood film-maker meddling with a culture he can never fully understand. You might argue that the Taiwanese director Ang Lee has done the same in reverse, travelling to the US to make his westerns Ride with the Devil and Brokeback Mountain. But there's a reverence in Lee's work that is absent in Memoirs of a Geisha. The fact that most of Marshall's film was shot in California - because of the impossibility of finding untouched pre-war locations in Japan - says it all. Authenticity can't be built on a back-lot.

'Memoirs of a Geisha' opens on 13 January