eeing 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.