Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) Movie Review

Seeing a movie after you’ve read the book it’s based on is a dangerous proposition for a viewer. Similarly, making a movie based on a popular book is an equally dangerous proposition for a director. Such is the case with reviewing “Memoirs of a Geisha,” based on Arthur Golden’s bestselling novel of the same name, about the life and times of one of Japan’s most famous Geishas (essentially high priced entertainers cum mistresses). The film is a beautiful and frustrating mess that opens in a damp and stormy fishing village as little Chiyo (played by the immensely cute Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister are sold to a Geisha House in Kyoto.

After the initial trauma of being forcibly removed from her home and separated from her sister subsides, Chiyo settles into the routine of training to be a Geisha, which includes tutelage in dance, music and make-up. Things go as well as can be expected, until Chiyo runs afoul of the House’s top money earner, the vain and invidious Hatsumomo (a scenery chewing Gong Li, “2046”). Sensing dangerous competition in Chiyo’s iridescent silver eyes, Hatsumomo unleashes a reign of terror upon the young girl which eventually leads to Chiyo being relegated to House maid. However, a kind gesture from The Chairman (Ken Watanabe, “The Last Samurai”) and jealous scheming from top Geisha Mamea (Michelle Yeoh) elevate Chiyo (now known as Sayuri and played by the immensely beautiful Zhang Ziyi, “Hero”) to the top of the Geisha order, all the while harboring an unrequited love for The Chairman.

Much like Arthur Golden’s original book, which takes place against the tumultuous backdrop of WWII, the movie version of “Memoirs of a Geisha” has a rather fractured history. Long in development limbo, a merry-go-round of directors came and went till some fancy negotiations between Miramax and DreamWorks brought “Chicago” director Rob Marshall on board. Then there was the decision to use a pan-Asian cast for the film rather than an all Japanese one. While this casting choice takes away from the ethnic purity of the film, it also allowed the filmmakers to cast recognizable names and faces, hedging the safe bet that the average American can’t tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

All of this led to a much publicized brouhaha by the Chinese government over the use of Chinese actors and actresses to play Japanese roles, with some going as far as to brand Zhang Ziyi a national disgrace for ‘defiling’ herself on screen with a Japanese man. The diplomatic rancor created a bit of comedy for the rest of us and a fair amount of hype for the film. Lastly, there was the decision to make this an English language production. While I can’t fault the producers for making this choice from a marketability standpoint, doing so does cheapen the overall feel of the film significantly.

To their credit, the actors do a serviceable job with their lines, but since English is not the native language of most of the cast, the dialogue is often delivered in a stilted manner that kills much of the dramatic weight. Language aside, the performances of the main female leads are uniformly good. Michelle Yeoh exudes regal elegance as the matronly Mamea, while Gong Li spits venom with the best of them as Hatsumomo. And in her first English speaking role, Zhang Ziyi acquits herself quite well. While her best acting work still encompasses little more than pouting, she makes excellent use of her eyes to serenade the viewer, and even manages to imbue her character with some emotional depth.

Director Rob Marshall demonstrated an eye for detail with his slick stage-to-screen translation of “Chicago”, and continues to do so with “Memoirs.” Having spent a few days in and around Kyoto myself about six months ago, I picked out quite a few nice detail touches from the older parts of the Gion District that lends a dash of authenticity to the film despite it being shot entirely on sets built in California. The costumes are as extravagant as one would expect, with the vibrant colors and stunning designs of the kimonos perfectly complementing Ziyi, Li and Yeoh’s natural beauty.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” brought to life by generally excellent, but not particularly consistent cinematography. The mucky fishing village where Chiyo lives is depicted with uncompromising grittiness while the bucolic wonder of The Baron’s glorious estate is presented with an equally powerful aura of fantasy. This is unfortunately balanced by the scenes during and just after World War II, which have a very made-for-TV look and feel to them.

As is the case with all film adaptations of books, decisions had to be made as to what parts of the book to include and what parts to leave out. In this case, the script writers have failed to choose correctly. Far too many characters with significant roles in the book are marginalized in the film version, and the inclusion of these characters leads to much on-screen clutter and plot threads that are started and never finished. The result is a film that feels rushed and compressed despite its 140-minute length, and the content feels like a Cliff’s Notes rendition of the book rather than a carefully edited one.

While “Memoirs of a Geisha” is certainly a lavish production fortified with strong performances from the leads, the film just can’t shake its harlequin soap opera veneer. Granted, the original novel is rather melodramatic itself, but a great deal of the book’s emotional depth is lost on screen. Couple that with the Anglo-centric production platform and “Memoirs of a Geisha” comes off more as ‘Geisha Primer for Americans’ rather than the epic love story it strives to be.

Rob Marshall (director) / Arthur Golden (novel), Robin Swicord (screenplay)
CAST: Li Gong …. Hatsumomo
Karl Yune …. Koichi
Eugenia Yuan …. Korin
Michelle Yeoh …. Mameha
Kenneth Tsang …. The General
Ken Watanabe …. Chairman
Youki Kudoh …. Pumpkin
Ziyi Zhang …. Sayuri

Buy Memoirs of a Geisha on DVD