The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince brings homosexuality into spotlight in a tale of gender-bending mixups, but ultimately loses its intrigue when it reverts back to a traditional story of cutesy straight coupling.
Editor Brian Hu explores the significance of mainstream Taiwanese documentary today on the occasion of UCLA East Asian Library's screenings of The Rhythm in Wulu Village and Taipei's Bohemians.
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It ain't a man's world in Mika Ninagawa's Sakuran, one of the best films of the first half of 2007, which recently hit the top of the Japanese DVD rental charts. English readers: rev up those region-free players.
Mika Ninagawa's Sakuran is a film which also functions as a love letter to Hollywood manqué Rob Marshall. The notorious director of Memoirs of a Geisha cast the likes of Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li as his Japanese geisha leads because allegedly there were no Japanese actresses out there who were fit to play Arthur Golden's Japanese geisha. The answer -- obviously! -- was to bring in the Chinese for the sort of glammed-up, exoticized Japanese culture which Zhang's ridiculous dance in the film all too well encapsulates. "I'm very proud of an international cast," said Marshall at the time. "It is a celebration of the Asian community." Well, that's sweet, but this ain't the fucking Joy Luck Club. Zhang and Li are talented and gorgeous, but slotting them in as Sayuri and Hatsumomo was about as disastrous a casting decision as putting Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom in Troy. When's the last time you saw a blond Greek?
But I digress: Ninagawa's film about the life and loves of prostitutes in an Edo-era brothel directly answers Marshall's claims by serving up ample portions of Japan's female artists' capabilities. It's a debut from photographer Mika Ninagawa, based on a manga by Moyoco Anno (wife of Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno), adapted to the screen by Yuki Tanada, art directed by Namiko Iwaki, starring Anna Tsuchiya, Yoshino Kimura, and Miho Kanno, and featuring a score by Ringo Shiina. What do these names have in common? Yes, they're women. And they've made quite possibly the most organically beautiful film to come out of Japan in the last two years.
Let it be said that geisha are not prostitutes. But geisha stories have been done to death, while the cultural significance of Yoshiwara's red-light district has been relatively unrepresented on the big screen. Let it also be said that Sakuran's Edo-era Japan is if nothing but a flamboyant pastiche of it's time and setting. Paper screens feature elaborate, multi-colored block prints, much unlike the stark ukiyo-e of a Mizoguchi flick; the oiran wear spectacular, revealing kimono which, while though might not be historically accurate, are true to the roles; even a giant, rectangular fishpond filled with swimming koi, elevated on pillars, serves magnificently as a welcome gate to the district's visitors.
An evaluation of Sakuran should be in the spirit of which it was conceived, which is not as documentary representation, but rather, as an adaptation of a manga based on historical records. In this way, Sakuran succeeds in kinetic ways much like Zack Snyder's 300. The color is cranked up to searing proportions, but this is fitting for the setting and passions of the characters. Unlike some recent colorful Japanese efforts (and many recent awful martial arts epics), production and costume designs seek to buffet, rather than obfuscate by grandiloquence, the central theme of the story. The film burns and glows and, while window dressing to the casual eye, the whole stage is lit up to echo the internal, inexpressible passions of its lady protagonists. As such, there's more color here than John Madden commentating at a gay pride parade, and it's all very masterful.
The story is about a rebellious peasant girl (Tsuchiya) sold at a young age to the crimson-hued and bustling Tamagikuya brothel in the historically infamous Yoshiwara district, an Edo-era flesh pond pleasuring every dude from high-ranking samurai to working-class stiffs. The girl comes under the wing of Shiho (Miho Kanno) -- an oiran, or top-ranking prostitute -- but despises the place and seeks ways to get out. Her best means is to claw her way to the top of the service industry, earning more elaborate names as badges of honor in the process. For example, sleeping with her first patron, a kind but very old man, at the age of 17, earns her the name of Kiyoha (let it also be said that the film doesn't skirt the sexual, albeit creepier aspects of the business).
Kiyoha seems to be on cruise control towards oiran-hood, until she's derailed by the advances of a painter (Masatoshi Nagase) and begins to requite his affections, in the process incurring the jealously of the brothel's top oiran, Takao (Yoshino Kimura). Like the best host and hostess clubs in Tokyo's Kabuki-cho, selling the illusion of romance is key, and falling in love with your clients constitutes a breach of basic business policy. Moreover, stealing the top earner's favorite boy-toy isn't smart for public relations.
Kiyoha eventually becomes a top oiran despite all the romantic rivalry, thriving as the premium draw in a horny guy's inexpensive sex buffet, but she still can't find a way to leave Yoshiwara -- she tells herself the only way she'll leave is when a barren sakura tree blooms for the first time in the depraved quarters. Encouraging her through her ups and downs is the brother's clerk, the strict-but-considerate Seiji (Masanobu Ando).
The story, as such, is really just a bunch of soap-opera elements thrown together with some wonderful-looking kimono. Don't get me wrong; there are some great moments there. Sakuran is as sharp as the original Memoirs of Geisha novel in its contrasting of a vibrant entertainment atmosphere with the great emotional pains of the entertainers themselves, who must buckle down and slog on, the professionals they are.
The grunt-and-knuckle-dragging aspect of the male characters is wonderfully indulged in here, but never finger-waggingly excoriated. Furthermore, there's a scene where Kiyoha is staring transfixed through a gap in the wall at a naked Takao grinding on some worthless samurai or other, and the latter spots her and gives her a wide grin (the scene is repeated, by an older Kiyoha, for effect). It's an apt summary of the film's themes: shame is but a luxury of restraint, of which there is little to be found in Yoshiwara; why bother with the niceties? Also of special note is the resolution of the Kiyoha-painter love story, a handful of cruel scenes which are increasingly all too wicked.
But there are a few bad moments, too, specifically the conceit behind the film's flimsy love story. I don't know why these tough-minded women would go gaga over the emasculated painter. Is it an "artist's charm"? Whatever, man. Similarly, there isn't much more substance to the whole catfight than the standard, cynical, "love is hell" tropes. As if to make up for this cynicism, Sakuran concludes with a conventional, safe, crowd-pleasing ending that is less a perceptible growth or evolution of the characters rising above their own cultural milieu, and more just a screenwriter tucking us in at night through a clever manipulation of circumstances. These are the moments where the film seems to rely too much on its pretty face, hoping that we'll be so transfixed by its charisma and charm as to ignore the banal insights pouring from its mouth.
And yet, it still replicates the feeling of a wondrous, sensual dream, in which you only want to remember the best parts because they're just so leisurely and hyper-elegant and yet so hedonistically unrestrained. It helps that Ringo Shiina lends her cat-in-heat voice to the proceedings through a furious soundtrack that mixes jazz and rock, even if it's played a little too much and too loudly. The sheer energy in the mix of the cocktail hurtles the story forward on a motorcycle; it's visual overload, but the actresses and filmmakers have such a vitality so as the thing never feels monotonous or wearying. Even the languid bits are so psychedelic and imaginatively staged that you can forgive the occasional slop. It's like eating chocolate-covered ants; there's enough glorious sweet stuff there to make you forget about the detestable vermin underneath.
What pulls it all together are the actresses -- the whole lot of them who were deemed unworthy to portray romantic geisha stereotypes -- but especially the two female leads. Kimura is a TV vet and a consummate pro and would overwhelm most younger actresses despite the tilt in the script.
But Tsuchiya is simply a screen wonder. She's one of the few with acting talent drawn from Japan's bottomless well of pop musicians and, thankfully, she's getting some recognition for her performance here. It's been a while since Kamikaze Girls, but it's damn difficult stuff to convincingly pull off a domineering female persona without appearing forceful or bitchy, and, as an extension, pathetic. Mika Nakashima tried in both Nana films and came up short, partly because she looks too anorexic to ever convincingly come across as threatening. Tsuchiya stamps around the set likes she owns it, scowls like she really resents it, sends jump kicks into the chests of unassuming whores like she means it, and, unlike impish Japanese idol-cum-actresses, she's physically imposing enough to do some serious damage. When she's not flying around, she exhibits a natural, almost bored calm, as if she knows she can turn on that vitality with a mental switch. She still occasionally plays up to audience sympathies throughout (one might mistakenly interpret this as "vulnerability"), but when those big, sexy eyes turn fierce and those impatient bursts of violence are pitted against Kanno's wily candor, all of us are brought to attention. And that should include you, too, Mr. Marshall.
Date Posted: 9/21/2007