Memoirs of a Geisha


Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Memoirs of a Geisha
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

A poor Japanese family is forced to make a heartbreaking decision: to sell their young daughters into servitude. Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister are sent to a far away hanamachi (geisha district) as virtual slaves. But fortune smiles over Chiyo whose natural beauty and stunning gray eyes will transform her into a moving work of art in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

Robin:
Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel about the life of a geisha before during and after World War Two was an international best seller and delved into a world hitherto unknown and unexamined in the West. Remarkably, American-born Goldman gave us a terrifically detailed view of the exotic and graceful life of Chiyo as she blossoms into one of the most beautiful, desirable and talented geisha, Sayuri.

Steven Spielberg was first attached to direct “Memoirs of a Geisha” but scheduling conflicts prohibited the uber-filmmaker to act as anything other than producer. Instead, sophomore helmer Rob Marshall, who made such a splash with his Oscar-winning debut, “Chicago,” took the reigns to bring Golden’s story to the big screen. The result is a lushly crafted, beautiful to look at work that is faithful to its source material.

Memoirs…” has been dogged by the controversial decision to cast three Chinese actresses into the roles of the Japanese geishas of the story. But, if you consider the international acclaim of star Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh and their familiarity to American and other audiences - versus the lack of any internationally famous Japanese actresses - then the decision makes sense, especially to the bean counters. The result is going to be a huge hit worldwide (well, maybe not in Japan, but who knows?)

Like the book, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is rich in detail but black and white in character development, giving the work a manipulative feel. The lead characters – Sayuri (Ziya Zhang), Hatsumomo (Gong Li) and Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) – are not given much by way of shading and they are portrayed as either good or bad. The filmmakers make the decision for you to like or dislike the characters, making them rather simplistic.

Where “Memoirs of a Geisha” excels is in the lavish production aspects from Marshall’s poised direction to Dione Beebe’s gorgeous lensing to the lush production design (by John Myhre), beautiful costumes (by Colleen Atwood) and majestic score (by John Williams). From a sight and sound standpoint, “Memoirs…” is one of the best of the year.

The story structure is divide into three acts with the first following the hard life of little Chiyo who, for unexplained reason, earns the instant hatred of Mother’s number one geisha, Hatsumomo. As the young girl grows into a beautiful woman she becomes Hatsumomo’s rival. This is the movie’s most profligate piece as Chiyo, under the tutelage of veteran geisha Mameha, grows into the premier performer in their rarified world. The final act takes place during and after the war, representing the end of an era as the West encroaches on Japan.

Mixed in with this story of the world of the geisha is on of unrequited adoration that begins when little Chiyo is shown a moment of kindness by a man known to us only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe). Chiyo never forgot this simple act of buying her a flavored ice and she decides that she wants two things in life: to be a great geisha and win the heart of the Chairman. I prefer the tale of rivalry and vengeance to the latter love story.

Memoirs…” is visually stunning throughout but has an incredibly beautiful and powerful public debut for Sayuri in a dance that is breathtaking to watch and the film’s keynote segment. The rest of the production design, especially in the glamorous world of the geisha, is first rate. As one would expect in a film set in this world, the beauty of the different colorful kimono that grace the stars. This is also one of John Williams’s best movie scores with brilliant using driving drums to ramp up the tensions of the film. The actresses are beautiful and capable, helping bring the book to big screen fruition. Zhang, Gong and Yeoh have cemented their hold onto worldwide fame with their lovely (and, for Hatsumomo, not so lovely) interpretations of their characters. Marshall elicits solid and distinct performances from each. The men folk aren’t given the depth of character development allowed the ladies with the guys playing symbols more than people. Ken Watanabe is likable as the kind chairman but Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa steals his scenes as the hedonistic Baron who tries to have his way with Sayuri.

The story is pretty simple but the film, like the book, is about the details and this is what attracts to “Memoirs of a Geisha.” I give it a B+.

Laura:
Sold at the age of nine (Suzuka Ohgo) by her poverty stricken fisherman father and further traumatized when the Kyoto house she is delivered to refuses to take her elder sister, the country girl who will grow up to become Sayuri, the most famous of a dying breed, relates the rocky path that got her there in "Memoirs of a Geisha."

After delivering a career high performance in "2046," Ziyi Zhang ("House of Flying Daggers") does pallid work in her first English language speaking role.  Director Rob Marshall's ("Chicago") slick commercial flick will undoubtedly have its admirers, but if ever a movie represented Hollywood marketing, this is it.  In addition to casting the three lead female parts with Chinese rather than Japanese actresses, one of Japan's most elegant actors, Kôji Yakusho ("Shall We Dance?," "The Eel," "Cure"), has been given the part of the disfigured, bearish Nobu, while the romantic lead is played by Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai," "Batman Begins"), an actor with more American name recognition.  This stripped-down adaptation (screenplay by Robin Swicord, "Practical Magic," and Doug Wright) exposes Arthur Golden's novel for the historical romantic melodrama it is.

In Mother Nitta's (Kaori Momoi, "Kagemusha") house, Sayuri is befriended by Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum), who encourages her good behavior so that Mother will send her to Geisha school.  'You will get to drink saki and sleep until noon,' Pumpkin tells her, and indeed, this how Hatsumomo (Li Gong, "The Emperor and the Assassin," "2046"), the house's big earner, acts.  Hatsumomo observes something in the new girl that makes her wary, though, and desperate to hang onto her status, does everything in her power to discredit the girl.  When Sayuri gets back by ratting out Hatsumomo's assignations with her lover Koichi (Karl Yune, "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid") - unpaid romances being strictly and harshly forbidden - Hatsumomo's rage seals the young girl's fate - she's taken out of Geisha training to remain a servant.

But when a kind man, the Chairman (Watanabe), finds the child crying, his generosity bonds him to her forever and Sayuri is determined to be in his world, just like the Geisha who accompany him that day.  And her wish is answered in the strangest way. Mameha (Michelle Yeoh, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), the rival whose kimono Hatsumomo forced Sayuri to deface years earlier, arrives and makes a bet with Mother that she will train Sayuri so well within six months that the girl's debts will be paid or Mameha herself would pay double.  Not only does Mameha succeed, but Sayuri finds herself again in the company of the Chairman, although not as she would wish.  It will take a world war to realign the stars for her.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" certainly is full of the requisite beauty of the world of a Geisha, which Marshall and his production designer John Myhre ("Chicago," "The Haunted Mansion") keep mostly obscured before Sayuri's coming out.  The young girl's world is covered in darkness and insulated by the overhanging rooftops of Kyoto's houses which almost enclose the streets, but we get glimpses of what is to come as Hatsumomo prepares herself for bookings, and it is Li Gong (or Gong Li in the Asian representation) who gives the film's only spirited performance.  She's arrogant, spoiled and mean-spirited, but it is clear that she acts from self preservation and the look on her face when Mother cuts off her love affair is tragic.  Once Sayuri is presented (she performs a dance for paying customers that is too pretentiously edgy, the Material Girl's Geisha video inverted into the Geisha's Madonna homage), the cherry blossoms bloom, at least until World War II arrives to gray things up again.

Marshall's film is so by-the-numbers, that Sayuri's Geisha training is shown like a sports movie's training montage and cinematographer Dion Beebe ("Chicago," "Collateral") uses so many crane shots I began to suffer vertigo.  The more subtle interplay of Golden's words are reduced to cat fights and lots of expository narration (Yeoh explains that the word 'Geisha' means artist, not a courtesan or wife, yet Sayuri's virginity is literally put up for auction).  The adult Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh, "Snow Falling on Cedars") is the most cliched post-war dance hall hooker imaginable in order to emphasize Sayuri's Geisha grace.  The grey eyes of the novel become obvious blue contacts.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" is a big, hollow piece of Hollywood entertainment with the pretty sights of a foreign world seen through Western eyes.  It's a popcorn picture served up like a main course.

C
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