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Pet Sins July 2006

The 'ethnic authenticity' requirement for Asian casting in Hollywood movies?

Hollywood's new hit movie Memoirs of a Geisha has offended Japanese viewers because of the casting of Chinese actresses as Japanese characters. Chinese in China too, considered it degrading for China's actress to 'pretend' to be Japanese. At any rate, Memoirs has riled both Chinese and Japanese, for different reasons.

I am not saying that either the Chinese or the Japanese have no valid cause for concern. What is more interesting is that many non-Japanese individuals have also joined the fray, condemning Memoirs of a Geisha as 'inauthentic' because of the casting of Chinese actresses as Japanese characters. But it is worth noting that there was no similar controversy over films like Enemy At the Gate, in which the Russian characters were played by Brits, or the Russian production of Sherlock Holmes, in which British characters were played by Russians.

Alexander the Great generated controversy in Greece because of its open depiction of great leader's bisexuality, but the fact that none of the Greek characters were played by Greeks wasn't as much of an issue. Likewise, the same can be said for Troy, and countless other Hollywood movies with Greek settings. And how many Hollywood films with African characters cast Africans from the 'right' ethnic group? For example, in Amistad, the main character Cinque, who was a Mende from Sierra Leone, was played by the Benin-born actor Djimon Hounsou. And for Hotel Rwanda, the Hutu hero Paul Rusesabagina was played by American Don Cheadle. And as for the recent Casanova, none of the main cast was Italian.

I am not implying that these casting decisions are 'wrong' or 'right'. I am just wondering why there is a difference in perception for the 'appropriate casting' for Asian characters in Western-made films, vs European characters and African characters in Western-made films. 'Ethnic authenticity' in casting seems to be more of an issue for Western-made films with Asian characters. If it is not a 'big deal' that a Beninese is playing a Sierra Leonian, why is it a big deal if a Chinese is playing a Japanese? (And I'm not talking about Chinese and Japanese reactions, I'm talking about Western reactions.)

As for Chinese and Japanese reactions to cross-ethnic casting, it might be worth noting that Zhang Ziyi, the star of Memoirs of a Geisha, had already acted in a Japanese period costume fantasy Princess Raccoon before appearing in Memoirs. Princess Raccoon was directed by the Japanese director Seijun Suzuki. Zhang took the role of the titular character. Apparently it did not cause anywhere near as big of a commotion in either Japan or China. Of course one could argue that Zhang spoke some Chinese in the movie (though she wore Japanese costumes), so she was not 'pretending to be Japanese', as some Chinese have accused her. Or maybe Chinese and Japanese audiences did not care as much because Suzuki's movie wasn't a Hollywood film and would not be widely shown to the rest of the world. Or maybe having a Japanese director make the decision to cast a non-Japanese actor in a Japanese role was different from having a non-Japanese director make the same decision.

Feb 2006