Memoirs Of A Geisha Review
Memoirs Of A Geisha tells the story of Sayuri (played by Suzuka Ohgo as a child and Zhang Ziyi as an adult), a peasant girl from a fishing village who is sold at the age of nine to a Kyoto geisha house. It's the 1930s and geishas are still a part of traditional Japanese society. They function as companions for wealthy, powerful men - a combination of performers, muses and mistresses.
The house to which Sayuri is sold is run by the strict Mother (Kaori Momoi), who keeps order with a bamboo stick. Her deputy is the slightly more reasonable Auntie (Tsai Chin). Most of the house's income is generated by two experienced geishas: the celebrated Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and her jealous rival Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Hatsumomo takes a swift dislike to Sayuri which turns into hatred when Mameha takes the girl under her wing.
As she grows into a woman, Sayuri is educated and groomed to be a geisha and, with Mameha's help, she becomes the most admired geisha in the city. Nevertheless, Sayuri discovers that a life of glamourous servitude is not enough for her. She also needs love and she develops strong feelings for a powerful local industrialist known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who was kind to her as a child. Unfortunately the Chairman is a client of her mentor Mameha and even if this wasn't so, romantic relationships are forbidden to a geisha.
I haven't read Arthur Golden's acclaimed novel on which this film is based so I didn't know exactly what to expect from Memoirs Of A Geisha. I was surprised however to be confronted with an old-fasioned Hollywood showbiz melodrama transplanted to a Japanese geisha house. As adapted for the screen by Robin Swicord (Practical Magic) and directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), it's obvious, overwrought and silly. There are times when it calls to mind Showgirls. I was left with the distinct impression that there must have been a lot more to the book than this.
A quick scan of the reader reviews at Amazon.co.uk reveals that most people who enjoyed the novel praised its poetic writing style and its evocation of time and place rather than its plot. The movie is all about the plot. The filmmakers have worked so hard to cram as much of the book's story as they can into the two and a half hour running time that there simply isn't room for detail and texture. The world the characters inhabit is reduced to broad, crude brush strokes. Pre-war Kyoto is depicted as a picture-book paradise filled with beautiful girls in kimonos, waving fans. Post-war Japan is seen as a vulgar, Americanised slum. Rob Marshall's lack of subtlety as a director didn't hurt his first film Chicago, which was supposed to be brash and in-your-face, but it certainly damages this one.
Most disappointingly, the film fails to convince as a recreation of the life of a geisha, which is surely the whole point. It's vague about what being a geisha actually entails. The point is made more than once that geishas are not prostitutes yet we see Sayuri's virginity being auctioned to the highest bidder. Where exactly is the line? A lot of obvious questions are left unanswered. Do geishas sleep with their clients? What do the clients get for their money other than fan-waving and tea-pouring? What is a geisha's status in society? How are they viewed by ordinary Japanese citizens? You'll have to read the book.
Taken purely as a melodrama, Memoirs Of A Geisha is reasonably involving, at least in its first half. It's impossible not to sympathise with a 9-year-old girl sold by her family to cruel strangers. However, the film presents this in the most obvious way imaginable. Sayuri is portrayed as a total innocent and her enemies seem to torment her merely because they're hateful bitches. Gong Li's character Hatsumomo is the reason I kept being reminded of Showgirls - she's like a Japanese clone of Crystal Connors, the nasty diva played by Gina Gershon who had it in for Elizabeth Berkeley.
While Showgirls is a joy to watch for all the wrong reasons, Memoirs Of A Geisha is too reserved to be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure. It's resolutely PG-13 despite its seamy subject matter and there aren't many moments of high camp, although Hatsumomo telling Sayuri, "I will destroy you!" does provide one. This is more like Roman Polanski's bland adaptation of Oliver Twist. Like that movie, Memoirs Of A Geisha is simplistic, episodic and punishingly long.
The love story between Sayuri and the Chairman, which dominates the second half, is much less involving than the earlier material. While Sayuri's infatuation is credible, the Chairman is given no reason to love her other than she's a hot young thing who's been trained to please men. Okay, most of us could probably fall for a woman for just that reason but shallowness doesn't make for a great love story. The Chairman's age and marital status are swept under the carpet, perhaps to keep us from realising we're supposed to be rooting for a young tart stealing a rich old man away from his family.
There's little attempt to deal with the moral aspect of grooming a girl from childhood to become a sexual fantasy for men. The auctioning of Sayuri's virginity is played without any discernible irony as a triumph for her and her mentor Mahema - she earns a record price! It seems to escape the filmmakers that they're making a film about child abuse.
Memoirs Of A Geisha is well acted, which is to be expected given that its cast reads like a Who's Who list of Asian talent. Some have questioned the casting of Chinese actresses as Japanese characters and I suppose it might be said that I'm showing my ignorance when I say it didn't bother me. However, is that honestly any different to casting British actors as Romans and Greeks? Casting is the least of this film's problems.