Memoirs of a Geisha Review

Japan, the 1920s. Nine-year-old Sayuri (Suzuka Ohgo) is taken from her family home and sold into a geisha house, the Hanamachi in Kyoto. This house is run by the disciplinarian Mother (Kaori Momou) and the friendlier Auntie (Tsai Chin). The two leading geishas are Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and her jealous rival Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Mameha befriends Sayuri, which provokes Hatsumomu’s hatred. As Sayuri grows into a woman (played by Ziyi Zhang) she yearns for more than the glamorous servitude of a geisha’s role and is attracted to a powerful local industrialist known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe). However, any romance is forbidden to her.

Arthur Golden’s novel (which I haven’t read) is by all accounts a book club favourite. It occupies the same niche as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin did: a combination of romance and melodrama set in an exotic location at a past time. Needless to say, Hollywood looked to film the novel almost as soon as it was published. It went through several directors – Steven Spielberg among them – before becoming entrusted to Rob Marshall, who had just directed a Best Picture Oscar-winner, Chicago.

The resultant film is well acted and looks astounding; its Oscars for art direction (John Myhre), costume design (Colleen Atwood) and cinematography (Dion Beebe) were well deserved. John Williams’s score adds a touch of class, with contributions on solo violin from Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma on cello. However, the story is a combination of romance and melodrama (add several helpings of Oriental exoticism, stir well) that really needs the visual flair and the passion of a Vicente Minnelli or a Douglas Sirk to do it justice. In the hands of Rob Marshall, it’s respectable, plodding stodge. This film fails to engage the audience and keeps it at arm’s length. That’s less to do with the English dialogue (inevitable with such a large-scale production) nor the use of three Chinese actresses in leading roles playing Japanese (which is more distracting). It’s a mismatch between filmmaker and material, and the story never really sparks to life. And for a film running nearly two and a half hours, that’s not good news. Frankly, Memoirs of a Geisha is a bore.

As Memoirs of a Geisha was one of Sony’s year-end prestige films (for which read, possible Oscar contender) of 2005, it comes to DVD as a two-disc special edition, encoded for Region 1 only.

Shot in Scope, the film is given an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 2.40:1. Derived from a High Definition master, it’s pretty much flawless. The colours come over very strongly, especially the reds, without being oversaturated. Blacks are strong and the Beebe’s frequent use of chiaroscuro is captured very well. There are twenty-eight chapter stops.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, either the original English (with some occasional untranslated Japanese, at the beginning and in the backgrounds to some scenes) or a French dub. This is a standard latter-day multi-channel mix, with the surrounds used heavily for music and ambient sounds. The dialogue is always clear, though given the accents adopted by the cast, some people may find the subtitles very useful.

Sony can hardly be faulted for the sheer amount of extras in this set. However, there’s something more than a little self-congratulatory about them. This isn’t the same as making a two-hour documentary on some older film, but material made specially for this DVD release. As such it’s all pretty bland, EPK stuff: the film is inspiring, and everyone was wonderful to work with. Undoubtedly everyone is under contract not to criticise their own film, and the results are as anodyne as you might expect.

There are two commentaries. The first features Rob Marshall and co-producer, choreographer and second-unit director John De Luca. There’s certainly a rapport between the two men – hardly surprising as they are partners in life – but neither of them are especially interesting or insightful. That said, inevitably there are items of interest to be had here. The second commentary features Colleen Atwood, John Myhre and editor Pietro Scalia. This is inevitably much more production-based than the first commentary, but it isn’t all that interesting either.

Disc One begins with a trailer for The Da Vinci Code before reaching the menu. Also on this disc are several other trailers: Fun With Dick & Jane, Rent, The White Countess, the Frank Capra Premiere DVD Collection, The Legend of Zorro, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Cutting Edge: Going for the Gold. However, there's no trailer for Memoirs of a Geisha itself.

Disc Two contains eleven featurettes, which all have to be accessed separately from the menu. There’s no “Play All” option. Each featurette is in 4:3 non-anamorphic, interspersing interviews with letterboxed clips from the film These are mostly EPK stuff, as I indicate above. The overall lack of insight is summed up by Marshall’s comment that he was qualified to understand the geishas because of the rigorous training he had undergone to be a dancer. The featurettes are: “Sayuri’s Journey: From the Novel to the Screen” (14:25), “The Road to Japan” (5:33), “Geisha Boot Camp” (12:03), “Building the Hanamachi” (12:21), “The Look of a Geisha” (16:18), “The Music of Memoirs” (9:53), “A Geisha’s Dance” (8:12), “The World of the Geisha” (8:29), “The Way of the Sumo” (5:58), “Director Rob Marshall’s Story” (10:04), “A Day with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa” (9:43). The dishes that Chef Nobu makes comprise the final featurette, “Chef Nobu’s Recipes”, which displays them as screens of text. Now you too can make New Style Sashimi, Broiled Cod in Miso Sauce or Mushroom Toban Yaki.

Also on the second disc are two stills galleries, one featuring colour behind-the-scenes photographs, the other illustrations for Colleen Atwood’s costume designs.

As a film, Memoirs of a Geisha is all dressed up with nowhere to go – but what dresses! No complaints at all about picture and sound quality, though the extras epitomise
breadth over depth.

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out of 10

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