Memoirs of a Geisha
Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Kôji Yakusho, Youki Kudoh, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. (2005, PG-13, 145 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 23, 2005
Well, we’re not in Chicago anymore, or even its soundstage approximation, but that hasn’t stopped Oscar-nominated director Rob Marshall from fashioning another epic spectacle out of two squabbling women in (a sort-of) show business. Based on the literary bestseller by Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha charts the impressive rise of a fishing-village indigent who, sold into servitude, eventually conquers her chief rival and all of Kyoto as its most powerful geisha, Sayuri (played as an adult by Ziyi Zhang). Under the tutelage of the elder Mameha (Yeoh), Sayuri is schooled in dancing, pouring tea, socializing, and the delicate art of revealing a strip of skin at the wrist. While Western misconceptions might confuse the geisha with a whore, top-tier geishas were more like entertainers – artists, even … well, artists whose virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder (a customary practice called mizuage). The script, by Robin Swicord (with additional work by Quills’ Doug Wright), unpacks a lot of practical information about the geisha lifestyle in a relatively gainly fashion (although the voiceover narration proves largely unnecessary and, on occasion, fairly damaging). Sayuri’s circumstance and surroundings are historically fascinating things; her character, not so much. After she meets an honorable, kind-eyed businessman known only as "the Chairman" (The Last Samurai’s Watanabe, woefully underdeveloped), Sayuri reduces to a thin film of girlish mooniness; Zhang (2046, House of Flying Daggers), an eminently watchable actress, may just be too much of a firecracker to really sell the milquetoast Sayuri. Far more fun is Asian superstar Gong Li as Sayuri’s main competition, Hatsumomo. In a role that David Thomson aptly describes as the Joan Crawford part, Gong is a trashy blast, a she-devil with forever-bedhead and all-claws-out. (Maybe Marshall just likes his bad girls best – the Oscar-winning Catherine Zeta-Jones was Chicago’s stand-out.) When Gong’s around, Memoirs of a Geisha has speed, purpose, and a sweet tease of camp, but her departure marks a significant dropping-off in the (way, way overlong) film’s forward thrust. Unfortunately, right around the same time, Memoirs of a Geisha’s other chief pleasure – the spectacular set and costume design – exits as well, as the pesky arrival of World War II into the plot necessitates tighter belts, less opulent silks. As Memoirs of a Geisha leaves the confines of the city and its timeframe expands, an air of unreality – the threat of which hangs throughout – finally overtakes the picture. I’ve little doubt that Swicord and Marshall have produced an accurate account of the geisha lifestyle, but I’m not sure that it feels like a terribly authentic one. That may have something to do with the film’s curious composition – Chinese actresses mouthing English on a Californian studio lot subbing for the pleasure district of Forties-era Kyoto – or it might simply be the result of the filmmakers’ diminishing rendering of context to the viewer. Ah well. At least Marshall and Co. get extra points for sinking their own happy ending via the voiceover.