Following in on our theme of moms who inspire their sons to, if nothing else, make movies abut them, this week brought Leonie, the story of a New York Gal who has Yellow Fever and just can’t keep her legs together.
I keed. Sorta.
This is a true story of a very intelligent woman who ends up editing the writing of a Japanese man at the end of the 19th century in New York City. The book the man is writing, The American Diary of a Japanese Girl (duping at least some of its readers into believing it was actually that), becomes a sensation of sorts, and in a fit of passion, Leonie and Japanese guy (Noguchi) hook up.
This being the 19th century, a woman had to have assurances, so Noguchi scrawls “Lenoie Gilmour is my lawful wife” on a piece of paper or some damn thing.
Look, they had hormones back then, just like now. (Good thing, too, or we wouldn’t be here blathering on the Internet.) Repeatedly but, thankfully, not on camera.
‘course, Noguchi is kind of a bastard and probably bisexual and vanishes for months at a time, and of course Leonie is pregnant. (You didn’t even need to know this was based on a biography of her son to know that was coming.) Leonie runs off to her mother’s place in Pasadena California (a farm, as Pasadena was back then) and has her baby au naturel. (Or, as they called it back then: “having a baby”.)
She gives birth to a child she doesn’t name (because the father should) that her mother names “Yosemite”, and finally decides to move to Japan so Noguchi can be a father to him.
So, yeah, a white woman with a half-Japanese baby moves to Japan at the start of the Russo-Japanese War. Say it with me:
What could possibly go wrong?
Actually, if a lot goes wrong at the social level, we don’t see too much of it. Noguchi is a jerk, of course. At first we think he’s come around a little, because he’s got her a nice house and pupils she can teach English to, and he cares enough to name his kid “Isamu” meaning “courageous” or “warrior”.
Then we learn that the pupils are basically favors (possibly paid) who all pretty much speak English. And Isamu’s main concern is having her edit his stuff. (I confess this is an approach to corralling a great editor I never considered before.) Oh, and he’s still vanishing for long stretches on account of his real (Japanese) wife.
So, she ends up leaving him—but staying in Japan. This wasn’t entirely credible, even if it did actually happen. But one thing leads to another and she gets pregnant again, and so moves again to avoid all those awkward questions.
I dunno. We liked this movie but I didn’t exactly admire her as a character. She had many admirable qualities and was likable enough, but she seemed pretty reckless regarding her kids. Something about that smelled wrong. As in, untrue.
Other parts of it smelled wrong, too: For instance, we’re treated to white kids bullying Asian kids in California during the Russo-Japanese war (which happened) but as racist as Americans surely were toward Asians a hundred years ago, it couldn’t possibly hold a candle to the Japanese were—ever.
But the movie never shows us any of the difficulty Leonie must have had, and Isamu and his sister in particular. Amerasian children? In Japan? In the first half of the 20th century?
It seems whitewashed. Or maybe a bit of a hagiography. The filmmakers want you to respect Leonie (and Japan) so much they’re afraid to show anything that really challenges her. It’s great that Isamu grew up to be an internationally renowned artist and architect, but I found myself wondering what happened to his little sister.
Anyway, excellent cast. Emily Moritmer is perfect as the eponymous editor. Christina Hendricks has a small role as her prettier friend. (I’m not a big Hendricks fan but the chick can rock period garb, amirite? Anyway, she does well here as the woman beautiful and socially adept enough to marry very well but who is tantalized by Leonie’s abrasive intellectualism.) Mary Kay Place looks—well, actually kinda yummy, as Leonie’s organic, whole-grain mother. (They frumped her up a bit for “Big Love” and truthfully she looked far too good for the hard life she must have had, but whatevs.)
Place brings a lot of pathos to her role, as a mom who imbued her daughter with an independent spirit, then came to sort of regret it.
The Japanese cast does well, but you’ve never heard of them, and they’re all pretty minor roles. Leonie moves around a lot.
Eh, it’s not great. It’s not even all that good, really, but we didn’t find it boring. It’s a three-year-old flick, which probably tells you something about how it plays in Peoria. It does seem like a missed opportunity, somehow.