HONG KONG - Will one of the biggest disappointments in Asia of 2005 carry over into 2006 and poison the year?
This rather looks to be the case.
From almost any perspective, last year featured a mushroom cloud of re-ignited enmity between China and Japan. The spectacle was both unseemly and unnerving. The inability of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to rise above this poison was dispiriting.
It is perhaps too much to blame this roiling bilateral bitterness solely on the two principal leaders, who perhaps in their private moments would prefer to move on from the past. But they may feel imprisoned by the harsh political reality that the primary source of the cancer comes from many Chinese and Japanese people themselves.
If further evidence of this sad reality were needed, it can be found in the controversy now raging over the casting of key roles in the otherwise entertaining "Memoirs of a Geisha."
The new film is loosely based on the best-selling book, "Memoirs of a Geisha," a gorgeous reading experience illuminated and deepened by careful scholarship about the relationship between geisha culture and Japanese ritual.
But that was the book — now we have the film: And film directors and casting agents tend not to be by basic nature or intelligent design dedicated scholars. And so Hollywood, being what it is (an industry that's all about the art of making money, not about the art of making art), the three leading actresses in this film about Japan are all ethnic Chinese.
This alleged casting felony has trigged a chat-room explosion of World War III proportions.
A personal disclaimer from your columnist must come first: the three female leads are Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeo and Gong Li. Let me be honest: Cast them in a documentary about global warming or an instructional video on wall-papering and, yes, I would buy a ticket.
So the fact that they instead of Japanese actresses got the spotlight roles upsets me not a whole lot. You see, I live in Los Angeles, the land of bottom lines, plunging necklines and absurd plot lines, not to mention casting anomalies. Please understand that hereabouts the only — repeat, only — film-industry criterion in casting a given actor or actress is not the noble furtherance of historical or ethnic sense but the furtherance of box-office profits. It is not much more complicated than that. To ask anything else of Hollywood is literally to require the tiger to change its stripes.
But out here in East Asia, the movie has become kindling to fire up yet another round of nationalistic hatred between the Chinese and Japanese. The hatred is real. In a large feature article titled "Kimono Dragons," the South China Morning Post, one of Asia's leading newspapers, quoted the following from an overagitated participant in a Chinese chat-room: "How could Zhang let herself play the part of a geisha? And how could she kiss her lover, played by a Japanese actor?" And this was only the Chinese anger; the Japanese fury arose from the casting anomaly that not one of the geisha parts went to a Japanese actress.
If this controversy makes you feel as if history is stuck in the 20th (if not 19th) century, as if time has not moved on, healing old sores and calming old scores, I am with you. In any plausible global civilization, nationalism must take a back seat to our common humanity. Right, Zhang Ziyi is not ethnically Japanese, but she is a phenomenal talent, as are both her Chinese co-stars.
To blame them for grabbing these juicy star roles is to ask of actresses that they not be cut-throat ambitious — please! And to castigate director Rob Marshall for casting these non-Japanese stars in key roles is to ask him not to behave like a Hollywood director — forget about it.
In the end, I would argue, who cares if Gong Li isn't Japanese if she's a great actress? At the same time, in fairness to all the great Japanese actresses who'd kill for such a starring role, I will personally campaign for one of them to get cast in a lead Chinese role — especially if my personal intervention will somehow calm the dangerously roiling waters of these two great peoples. Besides, when that happens, probably few in the U.S. will notice the difference. For most Americans, you see, all Asians are more or less alike.
UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran American journalist, is traveling in Southeast Asia again.
© 2006 The Seattle Times Company