The Asiatics and the Occidentals

One of the many great things about film is that, as a collage art, you can make one thing mean another, or drain value from an image or situation that once had great import. I had the pleasure of re-watching Mike Leigh’s 1999 “Topsy Turvy,” again recently, and while I love the film, I especially love the music. Leigh took, as his premise, the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 piece, “The Mikado; or The Town of Titipu.” In that work, the British composers explored their idea of Japan as seen through the eyes of colonialists who rule, but couldn’t be bothered to get on a tall ship. It’s the juxtaposition of the very very English text and music hall sound with cherry blossoms and fans that makes the surreality of the work so enjoyable. But Leigh pushed against those juxtapositions even further by taking, for instance, Yum Yum’s (presumably) comic speech about her beauty out of the operetta proper, thereby creating a monologue about a performer’s self-regard that is shocking and knowing. As spoken by Shirley Henderson, a treasure to keep watching, the willfully silly prose becomes mournful, an ode, thus inspiring me to imagine more juxtapositions: Bjork, for instance, singing “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” in front of a large audience at Coachella, dressed in a kimono. When she was growing up, the Icelandic native was called, because of her dark hair and slanted eyes, “China Girl.”

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