Ziyi Zhang talks about Memoirs of a Geisha
Hollywood’s $85m adaptation of the bestselling novel ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is ruffling Japanese feathers because the lead role is being played by Ziyi Zhang, who is Chinese. She talks about the controversy to David Gritten.
Moviegoers in the West may feel by now they’ve evolved past a point where they’d find it acceptable to watch Asian characters portrayed by non-Asian actors.
Film history is littered with such wince-inducing moments: Marlon Brando as the “wily” Japanese interpreter in The Teahouse of the August Moon; Italian Giorgia Moll, awkwardly cast as a young Vietnamese woman in the 1958 version of The Quiet American. In 1937, Austrian Luise Rainer won an Oscar for her role as a rural Chinese wife in The Good Earth.
Viewed in this light, it may seem a step in the right direction for Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang to play the lead character Sayuri in Hollywood’s adaptation of Arthur Golden’s global bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha. But some in Japan see it differently; geishas are uniquely products of Japanese culture, and there is some displeasure in Tokyo at Zhang’s presence in the film.
It does not help that Gong Li, also Chinese, and Michelle Yeoh, who is Malaysian-Chinese, have major roles as geishas. All this at a time when diplomatic relations between the two nations are cool, verging on frosty.
Zhang is forthright about this issue: “There’s nothing in Chinese culture that is an equivalent of the geisha,” she admits. “It’s so different, so special to Japan.”
“Before I started work on this film, I didn’t know anything about geishas. I had to learn all the gestures and movements. It wasn’t that hard. But to play them, you have to understand them. They can’t have boyfriends, they can’t marry. So you need to know why they make those sacrifices.”
Zhang, 26, is now China’s leading female star, having supplanted Yeoh and even the great Gong Li. One sees why immediately: in person, as on the big screen, Zhang has flawless bone structure and features. Slight of build and docile in manner, she sits on the edge of her seat, answering questions with impeccable patience and courtesy. Yet beneath this surface, she has a reputation for being steely, determined and ambitious.
“After I read this book, five years ago, I went to Kyoto,” she says. “I was really interested in geishas’ work, and wanted to meet real geishas. While I was there, I talked to some, and asked them why they wanted to become geishas. They told me they were proud to continue a traditional part of Japanese culture. Even their families were proud of them. But not as many women want to become geishas now. There are too many restrictions.”
She relates this story innocently, as if she went to Kyoto simply in the interests of personal research. Yet one need not be a cynic to guess she sniffed a job in the offing: Steven Spielberg had quickly optioned Golden’s bestseller, and a film of Memoirs of a Geisha was always inevitable.
Zhang plays Sayuri from her late teens onwards. As a child in 1929, she is taken from her penniless parents, to become a housemaid in a geisha house. While there, she is fought over in a battle of wills between two older geishas: her friendly mentor Mameha (Yeoh), and the petulant, treacherous Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who rightly sees in Sayuri a potential rival.
The $85 million epic was finally directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago); Spielberg stayed around the film as a producer. It was unfeasible to shoot in Japan, so an enormous geisha district, including homes, teahouses and village streets, was built in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles. This was Zhang’s first taste of a big-budget American film; it left her wide-eyed.
“Working in Hollywood, it’s clear the more money you have, the more technology you can get,” she observes. “So you can build a whole Japanese set. Only in Hollywood! I couldn’t believe the first day I walked on the set. Rob Marshall walked me like a tourist round the set. It took 40 minutes, so how big was that? Today it can be winter, and tomorrow summer. Everything’s unbelievable.”
So was the amount of work required to play the lead role as a geisha. “The pressure was on my shoulders, and I felt I couldn’t let anyone have any regrets for casting me,” she reflects.
Thus for a spectacular solo dance sequence, on high teetering heels, Zhang, a trained dancer, practised five hours a day for several weeks. Wearing a kimono, she had to hold herself upright all day: “Your neck almost breaks. It’s hard to lift an arm, the kimono is so heavy. You can only take tiny steps because it’s so tight, so you can’t eat, drink or go to the bathroom either.”
Zhang Ziyi (her American representatives recently persuaded her to use her given name first, Western-style) grew up in Beijing; her father is a government economist, her mother a teacher. After six years (from 11 to 17) of boarding at the city’s dance academy, she entered drama college, and was making a name as an actress by the time she was 20.
She became a firm favourite in Chinese films partly financed by US studios: The Road Home; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; House of Flying Daggers. She even had a minor part in Jackie Chan’s comedy Rush Hour 2, set in Hong Kong and Las Vegas.
All this burnished her reputation and made her globally bankable. She now has a profile across Asia (she is a spokesperson for Maybelline cosmetics) and increasingly in the West. Perhaps with one eye on the main chance, she began learning English two years ago; while she stumbles on the odd word, she is impressively fluent.
In retrospect, Memoirs of a Geisha may come to be seen as a detour in her career. She does not foresee portraying a geisha again in the near future: “For myself I don’t like the geisha look,” she admits. “It’s like a mask. People say they’re like actresses, but they don’t have their own life. Every day they’re pretending they’re somebody else.”
“But I enjoy being an actress a lot, because I can feel different women’s lives. I have the chance to feel like a geisha one day, and on another day maybe a scientist. That’s the interesting part for me. My profession has helped me to grow up.”
It’ll be intriguing to see where it takes her. Hollywood, she insists, is not her sole preferred destination, and she has no desire to restrict herself to kicking and fighting her way through Chinese action movies.
Next, she will appear in Ye yan, a Chinese film that she says “is based on Hamlet, but it’s even more complex. I play an empress, who is Hamlet’s stepmother.
“I don’t like kick-ass stereotypical roles. I already turn a lot down, even when they promise me a lot of money. I really want to do something in Europe. With a small movie, it can be an interesting challenge. But I have to get the right project. I don’t think it’s so important to go to Hollywood. All that trash that comes out of there! I don’t want to do that.”
We shall see.