Once again, here comes the West to the 'Orient'


It took a long time for me to recover from the blast of bullsh*t Orientalism that was “Memoirs of a Geisha.” There were the usual symptoms: nausea, shaky hands and an attack of shudders every time I passed by the Oriental Bazaar on Tokyo’s Omotesando avenue, among others.

A lengthy period of rehab had buried the nightmare, until an encounter with the film “Silk” — based on a popular novel by Italy’s Alessandro Baricco — literally caused the chopsticks to drop from my hands with a dramatic clatter.

An epic tale of love and the silkworm trade set in France and Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, “Silk” is drenched with the kind of East Asian imagery that we in East Asia only experience in NHK dramas that you watch alongside grandparents during new year holidays — after which we all give thanks for wonderful, present-day East Asian realities such as warm toilet seats and 24-hour supermarkets.

Director Francois Girard
Run Time 112 minutes
Language English and Japanese

“Silk” on the other hand, is immersed in the stereotypical East Asian exoticism of demure geisha and samurai ethics . . . and a deep down, hopeful belief that these things still exist over here. From the Far East to Western cinema: Please, just try one of our toilet seats and forget the samurai stuff.

Still, “Silk” has some redeeming points, most notably in the way it uses Koji Yakusho and Miki Nakatani, two of the greatest actors this country currently has to offer. Yakusho plays a village lord who speaks English with an uncanny fluidity — an impossible feat in pre-Meiji Era Japan, when the nation was closed to foreigners. (But then again, all the supposedly French characters are speaking in English, so I guess that makes everyone even.)

Nakatani plays “Madame Blanche,” a woman who weds a foreign trader in Yokohama and accompanies him to Europe. In France, she becomes a brothel owner who is famous for her steep fees. Fortunately, at least neither Yakusho or Nakatani are portrayed as cinematic Japanese cliches, or at least not blatantly. Yakusho especially, looks majestic atop a horse as he literally leaves a white man to choke on snow powder as he gallops away. And Nakatani as Madame Blanche sports an attitude that could only be described as glacial, putting men and underlings in their place with a mere lowering of the eyelashes. She also speaks impeccable English, and at one point tells a man to go away in a tone that implies her sincere disgust.

Director Francois Girard (“The Red Violin”) is far less kind to protagonist Herve (played with plodding inefficiency by Michael Pitt), whose white-bread vapidity fits better in modern Los Angeles than the 19th-century French countryside. Pitt is a bad choice for a role that calls for passion and adventurousness. Keira Knightley’s casting is also unfortunate, but in her case, it’s because her talents are wasted in the role of Herve’s wife, Helene. Her portrayal of Helene is smart, spirited and sexy, so what she sees in Herve remains a mystery.

During their engagement, he’s away with the army, and when he’s discharged and they get married, he tells her that he’s taking off for Japan to purchase silk. Helene gives him an enigmatic look that could mean she’s devastated or couldn’t care less. Herve leaving and not returning for months defines their marriage, but the guy is so vacant that his wife couldn’t miss him much.

The subsequent scenes of Herve’s travels are the best in the film. As with his previous film, “The Red Violin,” Girard does a wonderful job of translating wanderlust onto the screen. Before the opening of the Suez Canal, traveling from France to Yamagata entailed going first to Russia, then traversing Siberia on a dog sled before catching a ship from Vladivostok to Japan. The journey is long, hazardous and incredibly expensive, but Baldabiou (Alfred Molina), the owner of a silk factory in Herve’s village, gets the funds together for the venture so that Herve can smuggle back silkworm eggs.

Herve is overcome by the lush, misty Japanese countryside and entranced by the silent concubine (Sei Ashina) of the village lord Yakusho, from whom he intends to steal the silkworm eggs. The girl and Herve never get beyond exchanging looks over tables laden with sake, but this is enough to compel Herve to make the journey a second and third time, in hopes of seeing her again. Still, he tells himself in voice-overs that Helene is the true, great love of his life, even if he is saddened that they can’t have children.

By this time, though, it’s hard to care about any of Herve’s self-narrated emoting, or what happens to his precious eggs. In another era, and another movie, Herve would have simply come to Japan, taught English and found a nice girlfriend — end of story.