How Memoirs of a Geisha Became "Sensitive"

For as yet unstated reasons,  the movie Memoirs of a Geisha will not be screened in mainland China in the near term.  Below is the translation of an article that addresses the possible reasoning behind that decision.

In the end, this whole brouhaha refers to a deeper question about the function of the Internet in China.  This case is a perfect example of asymmetrical presentation of information on an issue.

Here, the subject is a movie.  On one hand, certain "angry people" used this opportunity to launch torrents of anti-Japanese talk.  On the other hand, the "rational grown-ups" found it pointless to argue rationally with a bunch of "mad dogs" and stayed away.  If this movie is screened now, it will be the excuse for more inflammatory writings to stir up anti-Japanese feelings.  Is that the desired outcome for a freedom of speech advocate?  Will it make for a better society?

(Southern Metroplis Daily)  How Memoirs of a Geisha Became "Sensitive."  By Chang Ping (长平).  January 27, 2006.

[in translation]

The Hollywood movie Memoirs of a Geisha featuring Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh was once reported to be scheduled for screening in mainland China around Valentine's Day.  But it has now been confirmed that this movie will not be screened in mainland China in the short term.  The information was that "the subject is sensitive."  The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television leader said during an interview that the film will not be screened in February, but he declined to say more.  He only said that "there will be a written statement later representing the official view on the issues related to this film." (source: Yangchang Wanbao, January 25, 2006)

When an import film could not be screened, it could be for content reasons, but another reason is the judgment of the movie company with respect to the market.  This particular film is a Hollywood production with Asian stars.  It has been hyped up extensively, so there should not be any doubts about the mainland market.  In truth, after the film was shown overseas, poor-quality pirated disks have been popular here.  The Chinese market is huge.  Based upon previous experience, a hit movie is usually a double win for the box office and the pirated copies.  Therefore, within the "complicated" issues, market consideration is not one.

Even if we respect the freedom to create fiction in art, if a movie truly distorts history or inflames nationalistic passions, it may be banned during a particular historical era.  This is something that the public can accept.  But for those who have see the summary of the story of Memoirs of a Geisha, the interview with the director or the movie istelf, this is a not a movie concerned with history, it does not address any national issues, it cannot even be said to be about culture, for it is only a movie about "wind-and-moon."  (风月)

[Translator's note: Here the translator is stuck with the technical problem of translating the term "wind and moon."  This is derived from the longer saying "wind, flower, snow, moon" (风花雪月).  The term can refer variously to either sceneries during different seasons of the year, or the sentimental life, or a life of debauchery, or florid poetry that is frivolous in content.  More than one of these meanings is applicable here, and there is no single English term that can convey those meanings at the same time.  So in the following, the term "wind-and-moon" will be used. 

P.S.  As a matter of interest, "wind-and-moon" was once used in the Chinese-language title for the movie Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.  That movie was known as 风月俏佳人, which literally is: "Wind-and-moon" Pretty Woman.  The qualification in front refers to the fact that this particular pretty woman worked in the sex trade.]

The director told the reporter very clearly that he did not want this to be a historical documentary.  He was only interested in the sentimental lives of a few individual women.  Thus, any Japanese audience interested in seeing the traditional geisha culture was disappointed.  Necessarily, any Chinese audience interested in seeing anything about historical and nationalistic issues will also be disappointed.

So how did a movie about "wind-and-moon" come to deserve this kind of "warm reception" and became "complicated and sensitive"?  This is because there is a group of people who really did not care about what was in the movie.  They found a reason very early on, and that is the Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi should not have played a Japanese geisha.  Many Japanese were unhappy about the Americns over the choice, because they thought that this role should be played by one of their own.  Zhang Ziyi beat out the Japanese movie stars, but she never imagined that she would nearly be drowned by the saliva from her own country's people.  To attack her, someone released faked photographs on the Internet showing her lying naked under the body of a Japanese male actor.  Actually, this is absurd because there is no need to fake photographs of Chinese women lying underneath the body of Japanese men.  Are there not many in those movies that are realistic historical narratives?  In the recently screened movie The Promise, did not Cecilia Cheung play passionate love scenes with a Japanese actor?

Therefore, when the experts come out to explain patiently that a geisha is not a prostitute, the matter became quite absurd.  On the one hand, the experts seemed to agree that it is acceptable to play a geisha but then it is not alright to play a prostitute?  Can an actresses play a prostitute?  Also, what about the many Japanese actors who portrayed the Japanese invaders back then in Chinese movie productions?  On the other hand, do these angry people actually care what Zhang Ziyi played?  They started the torrent of abuse before the movie was even made.

The problem reflected by this affair is actually not related to the movie or even the actresses.  It refelects a certain distortion in Sino-Japanese relationships.  The important thing to note is the state of this relationship itself, and about how to describe and resolve this relationship.  A lot of people wanted to express their anger against the Japanese, so they faked information.  This is an act that only allowed others to belittle them.  The ironic thing is that among the fabrications by netizens concerning the lies that the Japanese told against China, there is: "The Japanese despise the Chinese because they lie too much."

But, under the present state of Sino-Japanese relationship in which certain Japanese people repeatedly distort history and incense the Chinese people, the angry talk within public opinion is understandable.  There is no need to be overly critical, and the farce is within expectations.  Besides, I have always believed that the reason why the angry talk on the Internet is so torrential is because there has not been adequate and rational disucssion on the issue.  But, we must not affirm or blindly follow the absurd logic and extreme emotions.

Here, we should go back to the Memoirs of a Geisha itself.  If the movie supervision department banned this movie without any consideration of the market by the movie company, then this may leave the impression that this is a certain kind of affirmation for irrational emotions or even extremist nationalism among the people.  This is clearly inappropriate.

But I will never believe that people will find the following in the forthcoming official statement: "A Chinese actress should not have portrayed a Japanese geisha."  But without such a statement, how could a "wind-and-moon" movie become sensitive?