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Controversy overshadows touching Brokeback Mountain

By Lady Liberty
web posted January 2, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

* 1/2 out of ****

Memoirs of a GeishaWhen I was in high school, I was fortunate to be a foreign exchange student to Japan. To this day, I have an abiding affection for the Japanese culture and arts. As such, despite the fact I didn't read (and had no interest in reading) the book on which Memoirs of a Geisha was based, I looked forward very much to seeing the movie. Unfortunately, in most of the ways that count, the experience was a real disappointment to me.

The geisha of yesterday's Japan is sometimes mistakenly thought to be a prostitute. She was not. Instead, she was a beautiful and intelligent woman, educated in music, dance, art, conversation, and other social graces. Some geisha obtained high places in Japanese society and wealth in their own right, oftentimes via the sponsorship of a rich man. There were, however, sacrifices to be made to live that lifestyle, and not every young girl aspired to be geisha. One of them who did not tells her story in Memoirs of a Geisha.

Along with her sister, a nine year-old girl is sold by her destitute parents and she's taken screaming from her small village. Transported to a larger town, she is then sold to a local geisha house as a servant. Though she misses her sister desperately, her only hope is to work hard to avoid the wrath of Mother (Kaori Momoi). Her looks and her determination win her the privilege of being schooled to become geisha, but the house's reigning geisha, Hutsumomo (Gong Li) resents the threat. Eventually, she tricks the child into misbehavior that relegates her to a life of near-slavery.

One day as the child runs on an outside errand, she falls on a bridge. The weeping girl is discovered by a handsome man she knows only as "The Chairman" (Ken Watanabe). Drying her tears and buying her a sweet, he and the geisha he is with at the time unknowingly cause the little girl to focus her entire energies on becoming geisha herself so that she might someday meet him again. Finally, when she is 15, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) is taken under the wing of the geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), arguably the city's greatest. Mameha does so on a bet that she can train Sayuri to be geisha in a matter of month. Mother, who always hungers after money, takes the bet despite the objections of Hutsumomo and "Pumpkin" (Youki Kudon), who is an aspiring geisha herself.

Sayuri's determination to meet The Chairman again and to impress him when she does makes her determined to master every challenge Mameha puts before her. In surprisingly short order, Sayuri is an apprentice geisha who accompanies her "sister" mentor out into the world. She meets men, of course, and charms almost all of them. But the only man she really cares to please is the enigmatic Chairman. Unfortunately, World War II interrupts and even the best laid plans can't thwart a war.

Memoirs of a Geisha is a spectacularly beautiful film. The Japanese villages are flawlessly rendered, and seeing as how they were built from the ground up in California for filming, that's saying something (when I lived in a small town in Japan, much of the older country remained, and that's pretty much how it all looked). The scenery, too, especially a party amidst blooming cherry trees, is just lovely. The costumes are gorgeous, and so are the women (though compromises with make-up were made so as not to offend the sensibilities of American movie-goers).

The acting is very good, especially that of Ziyi Zhang (who recently starred in House of Flying Daggers) and Michelle Yeoh (who played a warrior in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Ken Watanabe, nominated for a supporting actor Oscar™ for his efforts in The Last Samurai, also does a good job. And the conniving Hutsumomo is wickedly rendered by Gong Li in her American film debut.

Unfortunately, despite its good points, the script and the direction (courtesy of Rob Marshall who so brilliantly brought Chicago to the big screen) outweigh all that and then some. A lengthy period of time is devoted to the small girl and her servitude; when she's offered the chance to become geisha, her fascinating training is over in 15 minutes. The end of the film is inexcusably rushed when the climax is built so quickly that there's no peak, and then done and over in mere seconds. Explanations are given in a few words to tie everything up nicely — so nicely that it feels woefully as if the director realized he was past the two hour mark and had to end the movie RIGHT NOW.

Memoirs of a Geisha is no documentary; much poetic license was taken. But the story is good and the setting so beautiful and so largely unknown to American audiences that it seems a shame it didn't live up to its considerable potential. It's a pretty movie, but it's an empty one, and I can't recommend you spend the money on a ticket just to look at lovely pictures. The film is worth seeing as a rental, perhaps, but unfortunately nothing more.

POLITICAL NOTES: World War II is very much a background matter here, and as such, the lack of focus on the war or its causes is perfectly legitimate. But during the course of the subsequent occupation, though the scenes are relatively brief, the Americans are clearly depicted as partying and disrespectful at best. From my time in the country, that seems just about right. Japanese impressions of Americans — as I learned firsthand — were that we were inconsiderate of other cultures at best. As far as I could tell, there was just cause for that impression! Whatever the legitimacy of our involvement in World War II (something I don't question), as the US develops more and more into an international policeman of sorts, we can expect more and more bad and exceedingly personal feelings against us to develop (which, by the way, can't possibly be good for our national security). I'm afraid I can't lay a lot of blame for those bad feelings anywhere but directly at the feet of some American foreign policies.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Memoirs of a Geisha is rated PG-13 for "mature subject matter and some sexual content." I can't imagine younger children would find the movie remotely interesting anyway, so I don't think you'll be placed in a position of having to tell them "no." The PG-13 rating is about right, but I'll caution you: Even older children (and adults) are going to find Memoirs of a Geisha hard to watch all the way through. That's not because it's not beautifully rendered, but rather because there's so little substance under the beauty. I'd definitely recommend that you choose something else if you intend to fully enjoy your trip to the theatre.

Brokeback Mountain

***1/2 out of ****

Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain is still showing only in a limited (though expanded from its premier) number of theatres. Critics have showered the movie with praise; it won first prize at the Venice International Film Festival this year; and now it's nominated for seven Golden Globe awards including best picture. After that kind of publicity, just how long are a couple of die-hard movie fans expected to wait? Since we weren't sure when — or even if — the movie will get to our small town, some friends and I decided it was worth the drive to a larger city to see the film.

If you've been living in a cave and don't know what Brokeback Mountain is all about, there are two descriptions that are most prevalent: It's about gay cowboys. It's a love story. The reality is that the movie is about both of these things.

In the film, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) first meet in a small Wyoming town when they show up at the office of local sheep rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) looking for work. Aguirre gruffly tells them they can watch his sheep during their summer grazing on the slopes of Brokeback Mountain. The two young men agree and, with nothing but their horses and a pair of dogs for company, leave civilization to spend a few months roughing it and caring for Aguirre's herd.

There's little interaction between Ennis and Jack; they have separate responsibilities, and Ennis is taciturn at best. But slowly, over complaints about too many beans for supper, Jack's skittish horse, and coyotes heckling the sheep, the pair begin to share small bits and pieces of their histories. Ennis lost his parents at a young age; Jack's are still alive, but apparently cold, distant, and disapproving. Ennis plans to marry in the fall; Jack wants to go back to bull riding in the rodeo.

Over whiskey and awful harmonica music, the two become friends if not particularly close ones. But late one freezing night, everything changes when the two are forced to huddle together for warmth. With no discussion and few preliminaries, the men find themselves engaging in hurried, rough sex. The next day, the only words spoken are: "I ain't queer," and "Me, neither." But despite Ennis' insistence that the incident is "a one-time thing," the two can't control being drawn to each other. By the end of the summer, they're very close indeed.

But it's 1963, and both know that they can't even hint of their true relationship without severe repercussions. Ennis marries his waiting sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams); Jack, who is back on the rodeo circuit, courts and eventually marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway), a pretty barrel rider with a rich daddy. Four years pass. Ennis struggles to support a wife and two small children while he lives a bleak life with a woman he loves but for whom he feels no passion. Jake struggles to tolerate an overbearing father-in-law and the suppression of his own desires. And then, out of the blue, Ennis gets a postcard from Jack. When the two finally get together, it's glaringly obvious that both men are happy for the first time since they left Brokeback Mountain all those summers ago.

Ennis and Jack manage to steal time together over the years in the guise of fishing trips that aren't. Jack doesn't hide from Ennis that he wants more than that, but Ennis can't overcome his fears, engendered in part from a childhood trauma. Even as the pair argue, their greatest pain is in trying to let each other go and move on with more conventional lives. In the end, their wives are wounded as are their children; and the two men are hurt most of all as they must live without love largely so that they can live without hate.

Brokeback Mountain was directed by Ang Lee who did so well with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and who then disappointed with his vision of The Hulk. In his latest effort, Lee's genius is clearly showing again. The writers, too, did a magnificent job of adapting a short story to the big screen. But what frankly makes Brokeback Mountain both believable and heart-rending are the performances of the main characters.

Jake Gyllenhaal is living up to his reputation as one of Hollywood's best young actors. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway both offer solid support; Randy Quaid and Linda Cardellini (who plays a waitress Ennis does his best to court) are also very good. Heath Ledger, though, is in a class by himself. You've likely heard the Oscar™ buzz surrounding his performance, and I have to say that it's well deserved. Ennis mumbles; he's stoic. Yet Ledger somehow conveys the deep emotions hidden under the facade he must maintain, and you can see and at times actually feel the bleeding man beneath.

The scenery is gorgeous (the movie was filmed in Canada; the mountains that stand in for those in Wyoming are spectacular); the sets will make you believe you're really in the 1960's and 1970's. But the story and the actors outshine anything else in Brokeback Mountain, and the combination of all of the elements make this one of the best movies I've seen in this, or in any other, year.

POLITICAL NOTES: There have been a few exceedingly nasty editorials written about Brokeback Mountain and how it's anti-marriage and "propaganda" for the "homosexual agenda." I don't buy it. The movie makes no comment except to tell a very unpleasant truth: some homosexuals do everything to hide their sexual orientation because they're afraid — even today — to do otherwise, and when they do that, they hurt others besides themselves. It's a lose/lose scenario. Nowhere in the movie is it suggested that homosexuality is either a good thing or a bad thing. Instead, what comes across is the anguish of a deep and passionate love that can never be.

If there are those who are opposed to the depiction of gay men having feelings just like the rest of us, well, then, it seems to me they're the ones working to engage in propaganda measures, or at least censorship that meets their own sensibilities. There are, of course, those people who'd like to deny that some of the horrific things discussed in the film ever actually happen (not only do they happen, some have happened in the relatively recent past); far worse are those few who think those horrific things are deserved. If Brokeback Mountain can draw some attention in that regard alone, that's all to the good.

Overall, the bottom line here is that, if you don't want to see Brokeback Mountain, don't go; if you do, don't let those would-be censors stop you from seeing a very fine film.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Brokeback Mountain is rated R for "sexuality, nudity, language, and some drug use." I would agree that the subject matter is fairly mature and that a certain amount of maturity is needed to appreciate the overall impact of the story. But if you've heard stories about the "graphic homosexual sex" depicted in the film, let those go. I'd heard them too, and was quite surprised to find nothing of the kind. My best guess is that the R rating is in small part for a momentary view of a woman's breasts, but is mostly because even the most conventional acts (kissing, for example) are given some sort of an added "forbidden" cachet when the characters involved are of the same sex. I'd say that Brokeback Mountain is okay for mature teens from about age 14 and up, and I recommend it highly for adults of all ages.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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