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Memoirs of a Geisha   C

Columbia Pictures / DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Rob Marshall
Writers: Robin Swicord, Doug Wright (based on the book by Arthur Golden)
Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Kôji Yakusho, Youki Kudoh, Kaori Momoi, Tsai Chin, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

Review by Rob Vaux

Memoirs of a Geisha breaks the heart in more ways than one. With a ludicrously talented cast, a fascinating subject, and a best-selling novel as a basis, it's hard to imagine how it could miss. And yet, inexplicably, the results are hollow and empty: beautiful trappings harnessed in the service of a tediously pedestrian story. Its focus on the world of Japanese geisha is breathtaking, but also dumbed down and filtered through unconscionably Western eyes. Director Rob Marshall loses the subtlety and grace such material requires, and instead creates a soap opera in white pancake, complete with scheming rivals, simplistic power plays, and a few flat-out catfights. The historic setting and exotic culture exists as a gimmick: the only quality separating it from mainstream Hollywood melodrama. Strip away the kimonos and you're left with a pumped-up episode of Dynasty.

It's a pity, because the film's truncated glimpses into geisha society are utterly intoxicating. Geisha are not, as the popular Western misconception holds, prostitutes. They are instead trained companions, skilled in refined arts such as dancing, poetry, and music. They provide pleasure of countless sublime variations, stimulating the mind as much as the body, and while they may indeed sleep with their clients, the transaction lacks the coarseness of a common streetwalker: rich patrons formally auction for the privilege of claiming a geisha's virginity. The details of this life are among the film's principle pleasures, rendered in flashes of bright color set against a somber cityscape by the exquisite eye of DP Dion Beebe.

Sadly, such joys are bastardized by a conventional plot that reshapes them for American audiences. Gone are the sobering realities of a woman's status in prewar Japan, the complexities that define and limit the geisha's ability to express herself, and the Machiavellian cunning she must exercise in order to get what she wants. In their place is a variation on the Cinderella fable, as the young Chiyo (played first by Suzuka Ohgo, and later by Ziyi Zhang) is sold to an okiya (geisha house) and sentenced to a life of drudgery serving the girls there. Her chief tormentor is Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a grade-A diva with a taste for loose men and a propensity for challenging the house's den mother (Kaori Momoi). She bullies Chiyo into ruining an expensive kimono, beats her when she comes near the older woman's room, and generally behaves every inch the wicked stepsister with no concern for possible comeuppances.

Salvation arrives in the second hour, when the ruined kimono's owner (Michelle Yeoh) deduces what happened and takes Chiyo under her wing in recompense. Renaming the girl Sayuri, she trains her to become the most splendid geisha in the city, a fact that both intensifies the rivalry with the aging Hatsumomo, and catches the eye of the regal Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who once showed kindness towards Chiyo as a girl (and whose affection she secretly craves). The structure follows a clumsy three-act format, with each section crudely separated and then strung back together by hasty voice-over narration. The onset of the war threatens to disrupt geisha culture forever, while the arrival of the Americans after Hiroshima sees its grotesque rebirth as lecherous Yanks pursue the girls like common pieces of tail. The shifts come suddenly and with only cursory explanations, leaving frustrating gaps that disrupt the narrative flow.

The characters do little to correct the problem, confined as they are to a few one-note attributes. It's tough watching stars of Gong's and Yeoh's caliber straitjacketed by such simplicities -- though admittedly their presence and charisma ensures we're always watching. The issue is further complicated by the choice to film the movie in English, a language with which only a few of the actors are familiar. Columbia Pictures has already taken some heat by casting Chinese and Malaysian performers in Japanese parts, and presumably teaching them to speak Japanese would cause the same difficulties as English. And yet the cast's interminable struggle with pronunciation botches numerous lines that must then be inferred through the surrounding action. Of the principles, only Yeoh feels at home with the language, and her dutiful plot expositionist helps clear up important points that get lost in the imperfect translation. But the remainder of the cast is too good to endure such indignities, and watching them fight valiantly through the syntax is frustrating in the extreme.

Marshall himself does little but stir the pot, throwing in a few turgid curveballs and settling into the mediocre routine of typical Hollywood theatrics. The enmity between Sayuri and Hatsumomo is draw in rough strokes, defined by easy insults and casual brutality devoid of the subtleties in which their characters are supposed to excel. So too is Sayuri's repressed romance complicated by only the most straightforward of obstacles. She often feels more American than Japanese, pursuing her dreams with stubborn tenacity and paying no heed to the milieu that she occupies. The entire setting yearns for a depth that the script simply can't accommodate, and the direction routinely devolves into near-camp histrionics, destroying much of the delicacy created by the sets and art direction.

To be fair, Memoirs of a Geisha retains a certain level of engagement, and never loses our attention so long as we don't question too much. Its physical evocation of time and place is impressive, despite the lapses from the characters; expect some well-deserved Oscar nominations in the technical categories. But the story it presumes to tell -- the "hidden mysteries" spoken of with such quiet pride by its narrator -- is all but undone by the misguided effort to make it palatable to the mall crowd. Sometimes, accessibility is the worst trait a movie can possess: Memoirs of a Geisha builds a beautiful garden, then runs an interstate through it to let more people in.

Review published 12.01.2005.

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