Sex, lies and Hollywood's false geisha

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 March, 2006, 12:00am

Many have criticised the cinematic release of Memoirs of a Geisha as one big sweeping generalisation about Asian culture. After all, it's an American production about a Japanese geisha starring Chinese actresses set in tatami rooms and cherry blossom gardens.

But aside from all that, I perceive something far more troubling about the film.

It's the very thing that holds the plot together that troubles me: the main character's love affair.

The film, directed by Rob Marshall, is based on Arthur Golden's novel by the same name, in which the character Sayuri unambiguously pronounces that she is 'becoming a geisha only to win the affections of the chairman'.

Sayuri - played by Zhang Ziyi - meets a man known only as 'the chairman' (Ken Watanabe) at the age of nine, and from then on is smitten by the much older figure. His handkerchief, which he hands her during their first encounter, becomes the object of Sayuri's adoration, symbolising all of her repressed emotion for him.

According to the novel, without her love for this man, Sayuri would never even have become a geisha. It appears that both the director and the writer took liberties in interpreting the life of this geisha.

The actual geisha that inspired Golden's novel, Mineko Iwasaki, related in her memoirs that it was art, not love, which kept her going year after year. Art was the reason she was able to devote her best years to such a career without a trace of regret.

I can see how a geisha's life would revolve more around art than love. She must be fully absorbed in perfecting every movement, doggedly practising until she is a walking performance, the embodiment of art itself. As in any art form, to be the best requires heartfelt dedication, discipline and an unwavering passion that persists for many years.

It's not that I don't believe a geisha can fall in love, but rather that a master of her craft such as Iwasaki could only have become so expert by making art her one true love.

Iwasaki did eventually marry, thus extricating herself from the world of the geisha, but she never once mentioned a spectacular and passionate romance as her guiding force.

In my opinion, Golden as a writer is performing a form of ventriloquism. In general, he has thrown fake emotions into Sayuri's monologues, depicting her as paternalistic society imagines her - a delicate, dainty woman who desperately needs the love of a strong man.

Where is the authentic voice of Sayuri? As an artist, a sensitive observer during social gatherings and a woman with long-delayed dreams, surely Sayuri has more feelings to be deciphered than just devotion to the chairman. Perhaps we don't hear it because Golden himself has refused to hear it.

Of course, not all western works of scholarship and art on geishas are apocryphal. Some provide genuine accounts of geishas' lives, such as National Geographic magazine photographer Jodi Cobb's photo essay, which shows the real face of the geisha.

Golden has repackaged Iwasaki's story along with her values, desires and personality. He has taken the compelling, true story of a female artist and transformed it into an utterly fictitious romance novel.

In the beginning, Sayuri says: 'A story like mine has never been told.' It's worth wondering exactly whose story is being told.

Lu Ping is Taiwan's cultural envoy in Hong Kong