The big Hollywood production Memoir of A Geisha is having a tough time landing in China’s movie theaters. The movie was adapted from Arthur Golden's bestselling novel of the same title, telling the life story of a traditional Japanese courtesan around World War II. It was directed by Rob Marshall of the Chicago fame.
The movie has been generating controversy in both China and Japan for casting actresses of Chinese descent for all three leading roles of Japanese geishas: Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li are from Mainland China, and Michelle Yeoh is from Malaysia via Hong Kong but of Chinese descent .
The film was reported to have received the approval from China's powerful film regulator SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) which was later reversed by senior officials. Ostensibly, the officials were concerned that the film may further the current anti-Japan sentiment in China . In 2005, anti-Japanese protests erupted in some major Chinese cities after Japan revised one of its history textbooks regarding the country’s past in WWII. The government had to crack down on the protests to prevent them from getting out of hand. Pictures of a nude sex scene, purported to come from the movie and include the Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, traveled widely on the Internet, fanning anti-Japanese sentiment before the film’s premier. Representing this sentiment, one Chinese blogger angrily demanded:
[translated] Zhang Ziyi, when you stripped naked under the body of a Japanese, did you think about yourself being Chinese? This year is the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender to us. Did you forget history? Did you forget the shame our nation had suffered? …
Ziyi do you lack money? You don't. Ziyi do you lack fame? You don't. But why were you so foolish as to play a geisha that the Japanese actresses didn't even want to play?…
No matter when, please remember you are a Chinese. Every single word and behavior of yours outside China belongs to not Zhang Ziyi, but to all Chinese. You represent the dignity of a country…
Memoir of A Geisha is not the only film slammed by Chinese censors. Brokeback Mountain, the gay cowboy love story that is enjoying unending accolades in the American film award season, is reported to also have been banned. That was after the director Ang Lee just praised Asia for having a more open mind about sexuality. In fact, A Date With Lu Yu (Lu Yu You Yue), one of the most popular talk shows in China, praised Brokeback Mountain for its love-conquers-all theme in a rare gay special in November 2005,
How much should we read into the censorship of these two movies? A Chinese reporter considered that the Geisha ban
reflects a certain distortion in Sino-Japanese relationships… 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.
Comments on Angry Chinese Blogger’s post argued that the Brokeback ban revealed only the censors’ opinion, and not that of the society. Most of the Chinese media, including official newspaper, sang praised for the movie, as represented by a short review on Sina, China's largest Internet portal:
[translated] After watching Brokeback Mountain, all of us were dumfounded. The film is a gay love story, very moving…. I remembered a comment from a colleague when I watched Happy Together in the past. He said that if I didn't treat the protagonists as two men, but a man and a woman, then I'd understand the movie. But with Ang Lee's film, I didn't even have to think of a man and a woman. For the story was so natural. It's about the love between two people.
Regardless, pirated DVDs of both movies are widely available in DVD shops all over China. After watching Memoir of A Geisha, a Chinese blogger wrote:
[translated] Sometimes I think, other than wives, men also need other women's comfort. Geishas are men's half wives. Why do Geisha have to painted their faces white? Are they afraid of others knowing the truth? I need to work hard, make more money so I can travel to Japan in the future, and experience Japanese culture.