Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha - more musings

Isn't it strange how a work of art, like a movie, is able to stir up such emotions that people would be actually prepared to go to war over it ? Thinking of it, that is in fact where my country's fight for independence began: after the performance of an opera which inspired my countrymen to rebel against the then ruling king.

But going back to the "Memoirs ...", what is there to fight about ? As I explained in my previous post, the Chinese have all reason to be proud, for the outside world now also seems to acknowledge that apart from their economic feats, China is ready to also contribute in the cultural domain again. Somebody put it back on the map and for sure, China is now here to stay.

I'd rather understand the Japanese, feeling "infuriated" over the fact that their heritage is being incorporated on the big screen by Chinese, but then again we run into the question "why ?". This interesting article maybe lifts a tip of the veil:

Take the mobile telephone industry, an area in which gadget-crazy Japan is hard to beat. Yet you cannot use the vast majority of the phones or their functions overseas. The real story behind the Memoirs of a Geisha ruckus is that corporate Japan needs to think globally.

Could it be that Japan, although exporting masses of consumer goods overseas, is enclosing itself within the shores by which it is surrounded, like for centuries the Chinese were closed off from the rest of the world by the great wall? I'm not familiar enough with Japan to either confirm or refute this statement, but I have the feeling that a common Westerner will not be able to come up with many more contemporary Japanese names than maybe Koizumi. I have the feeling that Japan is all too willing to export the "hardware", but is confining the "software" to itself. Maybe they are right to not rush head-over-heels into the globalization game, for we are not sure yet whether in the end it will be sustainable (although the other options have practically been reduced to nil) . I feel more comfortable with somebody who is not patting me on the shoulder two seconds after we've met, but on another level, it doesn't make you look sympathetic if you don't and as we all know ... it's all in the perception. And I think Japan is to a certain extent paying the toll for that. So I believe they have some more introspection to do in order to come to a conclusion on where they want to go, whether they will allow their heritage occasionally to be hijacked by third parties and then remain silent about it, or switch gears and ramp up their PR army.

Looking at it from another angle, though China has currently (and has had in the past) a circle of very talented directors, it is in my opinion nowhere near yet of equalling the movie-legacy that Japan has left to the world to admire. Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse, Oshima, Imamura , Kinoshita and many others have created a corpus of masterpieces that very few other countries can claim, so Japan likewise has every reason to be proud. As audiences worldwide watch these movies, it is mostly not the warhungry, cruel nation of Worldwar II it gets to see, but individuals striving for humanism in their existence, struggling with it definitely, Kafkaian at worst, but always with respect for their condition.
But recently I read an interview with Donald Richie, the old Japan-hand with more than forty titles on the country and it's culture behind his name, in which he was relating of more and more being drawn into the somewhat paradoxical position of having to explain to japanese youngsters what for instance the characters in Naruse's movies were saying and why they did what they do. After all, Richie is the foreigner but it is becoming everyday more clear to him that the new japanese generations are loosing touch with their rich cultural history, and THAT is why there will be more Gong Li's and Zhang Ziyi's playing japanese roles in the future. Japan is facing some tough choices, but so (and I would say: even more so) is China.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

Last week I went to see the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha", to see what the buzz and fuzz in China and Japan was all about, apart from the fact that the life in Yoshiwara has always been a topic of interest to me. The mix of raw erotics with a high level of refinement and an art scene going from Kabuki performances to the magnificent ukiyo-e prints, is something I couldn't locate in any other country. So throw the word geisha at me and you're sure to have my attention :-)

But this movie has gone far beyond the borders of pure entertainment, due to the fact that it's an American movie with Chinese actresses (Gong Li & Zhang Ziyi) playing the roles of Japanese geisha's. Nowadays, put those two countries together in one sentence and one is bound to bump into an avalanche of links on the Rape of Nanjing, ramblings on Yasukuni shrine etc...

I found this to be an interesting article that pertains to the subject, as the anti-japanese sentiments in China seem to have given rise to a class of youths that get denominated as "fenqing". I will not elaborate on what I consider to be historic stupidity, but I find it so sad that at the time when China can start to harvest the fruit of it's rising international status, a bunch (well, it's more than just that ...) of hotheaded youths is spoiling the party.

Because what are the facts: Hollywood, the Mekka of the film-producing industry (whether one likes that or not), is engaging two of China's hottest actresses to perform the roles of Japanese women. Why would Hollywood not choose Japanese actresses to play those roles ? In my opinion simply because there are none at this moment that can compare to Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi in international acclaim and why is that? Blame it on the "Fifth Generation" of Chinese directors, the Chen Kaige's, the Zhang Yimou's and the Tian Zhuangzhuangs of this world, that in just one decade have managed to pull the Chinese movie-industry from the swamp where it was slowly dying onto centerstage worldwide. No ambassador China has ever had, would be able to do what these guys have done for the image of China outside it's borders. In the wake of their movies, Gong Li has risen to well-earned stardom and paved the way for others to follow her steps. That is why they are chosen for this movie on a particular part of Japanese society and by taking on the roles, they are making a powerful statement that acting is what has brought them where they are, not politics.

The funny, or rather sad, thing about this all is that the Fifth Generation sweep, as I would like to call it, is for a great deal rooted in the "zhiqing" experience of many of those directors. No other movie will make this point so clear as Kaige's "King of the Children" (Haizi Wang). They are part of what was to be a lost generation of urban youth sent down to the countryside to learn from the masses during China's Cultural Revolution. It's proven to be a most painful experience for most parties, and their way back to "civilised" society was mostly filled with more hardship. But then there is this group in the eighties, emerging from the swamp and chaos of the past period like a waterlily grows from the muddy ground in a dirty pond, basically telling what they had seen and experienced in their "zhiqing"days, but doing it with such a technical mastering that it didn't take long before they had the worlds attention. They've seen some bad things in their time, but they've moulded it into something dignified.

So what about these "fenqing"? Compared to their parents, they have all they can ever dream of, they haven't had to live through the atrocities of the war, there is no Japanese that has ever harmed them personally, so what's the point ??!! Oh, I know, history is transferred through several generations and you can't wipe out the pain and wounds of the victims in one generation. So the rage at what happened in the past being still there is something I can still understand to a certain extent, the uncontrolled and fairly ridiculous outing of these sentiments is however unworthy of a China only just knocking at the door of the international community. There have been people in the past who have shown how to do it in another way, so the only reaction befitting to the actresses who star in "Memoirs of a geisha" would be one of respect for them and those who initially got them in front of a Chinese camera. All the rest, the hatred and the dirt-throwing, is just a sickening mockery of what could be a great country.

To enter into the light ...

There's this magazine where I live, that every year, around Newyear, invites the people with name and fame in our small country to answer a few questions on their best and worst experiences of the past 12 months and one of the questions deals particularly with what they consider has been the major trend of that period. So you get to see a lot of answers that refer to the political upheavals we've all witnessed, or to the growing -ism's worldwide (nationalism, egocentrism, puritanism ...) with an occasional young mother happily stating the birth of her son or daughter was THE event of the year and she didn't care about all the rest.

This year, I was wondering by myself what I would have answered to that question. The answer became clear to me when I saw an article stating the number of blogs there were around in China: it was up in the millions ! And then I saw Technorati, keeping track of 30 million blogs ! So it became clear to me that one of the major trends going on worldwide is definitely this thing called "blogging". As it is, I think we are probably only just witnessing the beginning of this phenomenon, that in my view is due -or more carefully expressed: potentially has the power- to have a major impact on the decision processes that rule the way this world functions.

Someone has invented free speech and it's a computer tool. Glory Hallelujah ... !!!

It seems like the Genie is out of the bottle, now it's time to find out what kind of a Genie was in there in the first place.

But why, then I wondered, is blogging seemingly such a huge succes ? What's the attraction? While I was pondering the question, it was this song from Patricia Kaas that came to my mind as (maybe only just part) of the answer:

"Entrer dans la lumière,
Comme un insecte fou ..."

(To enter into the light,
like a crazy insect ...)

Isn't that part of why we all do what we do on our blogs? For sure, we don't all belong to the class of the bold and the beautiful that get followed by the spotlight wherever they go, but we all want our five minutes of fame. At some time, we all want to be under the glow of that light shining on just you, to be there up that stage and the audience at your feet, holding it's breath in awe of your every move. So we have come to flock to that biggest stage on earth that has become the World Wide Web, we are attracted to it like the insect at night is attracted by the light. And we perform, we blog about whatever comes to our mind. Some may harvest big rounds of applause, some will have to do with just one shadow sitting in the back of the theatre and walking off without a sound. But at least, we will have been there and we'll know how it felt. The rest is up to each of us.

So, yes, I decided to also start a blog of my own, mostly because I was always better at writing than I was at talking, and maybe now I'm already not much of writer anymore. But at least, now I have a space where I CAN ventilate some of my thoughts, be it about China, movies, my personal self ... I haven't figured out yet where exactly I want to take this blog to, I'm keeping the options open. For now, I'll just spread my tiny little wings and be off ... into the light.