I confess that I did not know what a Geisha was before seeing this film. For the uninitiated and those who have not read Arthur Golden’s novel of the same name, a Geisha is essentially a diversely talented prostitute. I say diversely talented because they are proficient dancers and well-versed in pleasing men in more ways than one. As the dignitary Mameha (Yeoh) says, “A true geisha can stop a man in his tracks with a single look.”
The film picks up in 1929 (thanks to a little research; the film does not tell you directly) with little nine-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) being uprooted from her fishing village and separated from her sister. She is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district, where she is to live under the strict guidance of head geisha Hatsumomo (Li). She is essentially under slave duty until it can be determined if she can please the clientèle of the house. Chiyo frequently finds herself in hot water with Hatsumomo, which partially leads to her leaving the house. In her teens Chiyo is purchased by Mameha, the direct rival to Hatsumomo, and placed in her house. There she becomes a full-fledged geisha and is given the name Sayuri (Zhang). Her reputation as a geisha is quite renowned throughout the land, and she soon finds herself mingling with and entertaining the richest and most privileged in society. With World War II looming, however, Sayuri’s life is destined to change along with the rest of the geisha community.
Some movies seem destined to be remembered as Oscar bait, and Memoirs of a Geisha will likely join that company. Visually, the film is nothing short of impeccable. Director Rob Marshall (he of Chicago fame) has a wonderful eye for detail and can stage a beautiful dance act with the best of them (the runway sequence in this film is far and away the most impressive). Those simply looking for some illustrious eye candy will be pleased. However, Marshall stumbles with the storyline, almost as if it’s so dense and complicated that he doesn’t know how to tell it coherently. It’s not entirely his fault as the screenplay by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright is a mishmash of storylines that hops all over the map with little sense of setting or time. Furthermore, the film never feels like it dives head first into the nitty-gritty of being a geisha. The romantic subplot involving Sayuri’s relationship with The Chairman (Watanabe) feels surprisingly sterile and devoid of emotion. It’s one of those films where when you’re watching it seems like a lot is happening, but when you go home and let things settle you discover that a lot of it was gloss and filler.
The core issue here is the fact that the story has been westernized to the point that it almost feels offensive. Having all the characters speak English just rings false, but this was clearly done in an effort to make it more appealing to the masses, hence raising the likelihood of an Oscar nod. Much has been made about the decision to cast Chinese actors in the roles of Japanese characters, but that doesn’t so much bother me as the blatant disrespect for the source material in the hopes of attracting the on-the-rail crowd who won’t watch subtitled films.
The acting is on-par for the most part, with the beautiful Ziyi Zhang stealing the show. She is electric as Sayuri in her first English-speaking role. Her young counterpart, Suzuka Ohgo, with her hypnotic blue eyes, is also fantastic and she occupies the most compelling section of the film. Michelle Yeoh and Ken Watanabe are suitable, but are a far cry from their better performances in other better films.
Had the screenwriters nailed the love story and made the overall narrative more cohesive, Memoirs of a Geisha may have wound up as a transcendent film. As it stands, the film can best be described as a gorgeous, convoluted mess.
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Length: 145 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content.
Theatrical Release: December 9, 2005 (Limited) / December 23, 2005 (Wide)
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: Robin Swicord & Doug Wright. Based upon the novel by Arthur Golden.
Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Koji Yakusho, Youki Kudoh
This is the most unfairly maligned film of the year. Some critics took it upon themselves to be the defenders of Japanese culture (without fully researching their arguments) and, in the process, betrayed their own racism. “The film is inauthentic because the actresses do not wear matronly bouffants,” one said. Riiiiiight. Matronly bouffants are a Western stereotype! But in any case, some of them do and some don’t! THAT’S authenticity. I guess critics wouldn’t know that writing reviews without seeing the film or walking out long before it’s over (some, such as Jeff Wells, do).
Anyway, it’s a fantastic film and more than deserving of multiple Academy award nominations – which it may not get thanks to the fact that so many people decided they wanted to use the film as the sacrificial lamb for a half-baked debate about international politics, rather consider that pan-Asian casting for major roles is NOTHING new (it’s true of House of Flying Daggers, The Joy Luck Club and even Crouching Tiger) and that this film’s production might represent international cooperation at its best.
Look out for Gong Li and Youki Kudoh in RICHLY developed supporting roles. The supporting males, while obviously not as well developed since they spend less time in the geisha quarters, still give incredible performances. Ken Watanabe was excellent, but I particularly enjoyed the performance of the actor playing Nobu. Oprah is right about the sets and costumes; they (amongst other things) make you want to savor every moment of the film. Some people have argued that the brilliant colors make it seem like some sort of Orientalist fantasy. Truth is that this would only be the case if we saw a departure from a more sedate West to a flamboyant East; instead, the film opens in a rather sedate part of Japan and then takes us to the more colorful geisha district (which introduces this fascinating paradox of great suffering in a milieu of tremendous beauty). We know from Chicago that it’s simply Rob Marshall’s aesthetic to make everything the height of beauty, even if it’s a slum. God forbid ENTERTAINMENT CIRCLES should be presented as visually spectacular! The film is by turns funny, moving and, yes, thrilling. Gasps in the audience for the film’s third act gave way to sniffles. Ziyi Zhang really managed any language difficulties well; her face has this ripple effect when she’s emoting. It’s stunning to behold. If I were voting for the Oscars, I’d definitely give her a nomination at the very least. And homegirl can dance, too! Her performance and the film itself are not boring at all; audience members laughed when she was trying to be funny and sighed when she was suffering. IMO, too much happens in the film for it to get boring; there’s a strong balance between the rivalries, the details about geisha entertainment and the romance. In the final scene, it all comes full circle. I won’t tell you how. See for yourself.
My #1 film of the year. Brokeback Mountain, Chronicles of Narnia, Howl’s Moving Castle, King Kong and Grizzly Man aren’t far behind.