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`Memoirs of a Geisha' film kicks up storm in Japan and China

BEIJING—China and Japan, which are at each other's throats over any number of issues, finally seem to agree on one thing: Hollywood's latest release is a cultural dud.

The Hollywood movie "Memoirs of a Geisha," which had its world premiere in Tokyo on Tuesday, has triggered consternation in Japan because none of the three lead actresses are Japanese; two of them are Chinese and another is an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia.

Citizens polled about the matter in Tokyo questioned why Hollywood chose Chinese actresses to portray geishas, quintessentially Japanese women trained in traditional arts of singing, dancing and accompanying wealthy men.

If there's dismay in Japan, there's outrage in China, but for a different reason: Many Chinese are beside themselves that the film's star, Zhang Ziyi, China's best-known actress, is depicted in the movie as having sexual relations with a Japanese man.

"She deserves to be chopped into a thousand bits," said one Internet user, one of more than 1,000 people who posted on the subject at the Tianji (Sky's Edge) Web portal.

"Zhang is a shameless prostitute," another posting said. "She should be deprived of Chinese citizenship.

Relations between China and Japan, the two powerhouses of East Asia, are at a low ebb. Despite deepening economic ties with Japan, China still harbors bitter feelings toward Japan dating to the period before and during World War II, when Japan invaded large parts of China and dealt brutally with the Chinese people. Many Chinese, censored from voicing their views of their own authoritarian government, express anger whenever they perceive any sign of national weakness before Japan.

The film, which will be released Dec. 9 in the United States, is an international production. Its American director, Rob Marshall, is known for the 2002 Oscar-winning movie "Chicago." In addition to Zhang Ziyi, the movie stars Japanese actor Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai"), Chinese actress Gong Li and Malaysian martial-arts star Michelle Yeoh, an ethnic Chinese who's playing the role of mentor to the movie's protagonist.

"It's a bit awkward that the main character, Sayuri, isn't played by a Japanese actress when the movie primarily focuses on Japanese culture," a woman who identified herself only as Kai told Japan Today Online.

"I think Hollywood people don't care whether they (the actresses) are Japanese or Chinese," said Chiaki Miyazaki, a 46-year-old Kyoto native who's a music producer. "When I was in the United States, American people thought Japanese, Chinese and Korean are all the same."

One of China's best-known film directors, Chen Kaige, who did the 1993 "Farewell, My Concubine," questioned in a speech in the Japanese city of Kobe on Nov. 9 why Japanese actresses weren't found for the leading roles.

"I just don't understand why," Chen said. "Geisha is a centuries-old Japanese tradition and cannot possibly be portrayed by Chinese actresses. The geisha have a sophisticated way of walking, holding a fan, smiling and looking at people."

Many modern Japanese women hardly know how to wear kimono or walk in traditional wooden sandals, said Tsukiko Doi, a restaurant owner in Kyoto.

"Maybe they can't sit on their heels with their back straight and knees together," Doi said. "Yet still they have a sense of being Japanese."

The release of the movie in China has been postponed to at least Feb. 10 because censors are haggling with producers about whether a sex scene can be cut in length, China Radio International reported this week.

Some of the publicity about "Memoirs of a Geisha," which is based on a novel of the same name by Arthur Golden that spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, appeared to be the result of mischief-makers in China, who distributed fake pictures of Zhang and Watanabe in a nude scene from the movie. The doctored photos are all over Web sites in China.

Hollywood also is coming under the gun elsewhere in Asia.

Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan, promoting his latest film in India, told a national newspaper there that Asia's film industries should unite against Hollywood if they want to preserve their unique cultures. Chan, a 51-year-old comic action hero, said young people across Asia were too eager to imitate their favorite Western film stars.

"Why do we need to ape their culture? I see an Indian saying, `Yo, man!'" Chan told the Times of India over the weekend. "But that's not what Asians are about. Cinema reflects culture and there is no harm in adapting technology, but not at the cost of losing your originality."

Chan has starred in such high-earning Hollywood films as "Rush Hour," "Shanghai Noon," "Rush Hour 2" and "The Tuxedo."


(Johnson reported from Beijing, Knight Ridder special correspondent Doi from Tokyo.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Zhang Ziyi

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