One of the great themes of film history has been the growing rivalry between Hollywood and Asian cinema. This is the real cultural clash of east and westby Mark Cousins / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
One morning recently I went to see Memoirs of a Geisha, Columbia Pictures and American director Rob Marshall’s account of the education of a young girl who becomes one of the figures in eastern life that most fascinates the west—a geisha. As the end credits rolled, I walked to an adjacent screen and watched Brokeback Mountain, Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s portrait of the lives of the figures in western cinema who most fascinate eastern directors—cowboys. Each is a ventriloquism of sorts, or a stealing of the rival’s clothes.
Memoirs of a Geisha and Brokeback Mountain have several things in common. Both were made by American production companies—though, to add to the hall of mirrors effect, Geisha’s backer, Columbia, is owned by the Japanese company Sony. Both films are about sex. Marshall’s has the girl slowly realise that the beautifully dressed, Dionysian women who surround her sell a sophisticated form of sex. Lee’s film takes the most prevalent male archetype in American cinema and—as American critics say—queers him, positing eros in a relationship between frontiersmen.
The techniques of the films could not be more different, however. From the off, Memoirs of a Geisha’s business is mythmaking. The opening commentary mentions a “forbidden, fragile” world full of “mysteries.” The camera is always craning and gliding, attempting to make us feel awe at the places in which we are being immersed, as if they are the settings of a fairy tale. The lighting is stylised throughout, as it was in Marshall’s last film, the musical Chicago. The aesthetic strategy is smoke and mirrors: to conjure a cultural and sexual elsewhere through visual uncertainty, glimpsing and feeling.
Lee’s film is from another universe. His camera hardly moves. Almost everything is seen in crisp, clear and naturalistic light. Shots are held a long time. There is little or no filtration. Camera tricks are almost non-existent—just three small dissolves in the whole movie. This is filmmaking as cold hard stare. If Lee and his screenwriters Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana and E Annie Proulx (who wrote the New Yorker short story to which the film is faithful) intend something like an introduction of the explicitly erotic into an already homosocial genre which has nonetheless ignored or tiptoed around sex, they could not have chosen a better approach. They have taken America’s greatest fairytale and reintroduced it to the real world. Others have tried to do so…