Memoirs of a Geisha is a cold, detached, and meticulously crafted piece of cinema.
PG-13 for mature subject matter, some sexual content
Rob Marshall, who directed the superlative movie adaptation of Chicago, has hit the sophomore slump with this soulless adaptation of Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel.
While some might find the movie’s beautiful cinematography enough to rival Golden’s quasi-poetic writing style, there’s little here to keep viewers engaged. A sense of mechanical, calculated storytelling overwhelms the film from the beginning, when young Sayuri (Suzuka Ohgo) is sold off one dark and stormy night in hopes of her becoming a money-earning geisha.
Marshall uses sporadic first person narration in an attempt to bring to life this geisha’s memoirs, but Sayuri’s voiceover might as well be telling the story of some other woman, the recollection is so devoid of emotion and passion.
Sayuri’s journey from young girl to Japanese hottie and socialite, at times feels like it’s supposed to be some sort of Rocky tale. Will she be able to master the art of the geisha in an “impossibly” short amount of time? Will she win the favor of all the right people? She has ocean-blue eyes, but does she have the eye of the tiger?
Well, it is called Memoirs of a Geisha, so there’s no drama or excitement in seeing her shimmy her way from floor sweeper to Kimono dancer. There are lots of traumatic events in Sayuri’s life; she’s torn away from her parents, separated from her sister; becomes an indentured slave until her coach arrives in the guise of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), only to have her virginity sold to the highest bidder. But through it all, there’s no feeling of consequence or danger.
According to geisha culture love is considered an “illusion.” Fine. So is filmmaking.
But when you’re ultimately trying to tell a romantic love story that consumes a woman’s entire life, you’ve gotta show some heart sometime, especially when Sayuri falls head over thongs for The Chairman (Ken Watanabe, Batman Begins) as a young girl and he becomes her lifelong fixation. Unfortunately, there’s no passion as she maneuvers her way into the man’s heart, and the slapped-on bit of lovey-dovey at the film’s end is far too little, far too late. The heartstrings remain untouched throughout.
The movie’s dramatic failure is all the more tragic given the talents involved. John Williams contributes one of his finer scores, pulling in Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma to perform compositions that suitably emphasize the Japanese flair for string instruments.
Like the cinematography and score, the cast is also beautiful. Most notable is Gong Li (Ju Dou), who defies all known laws of aging and is a knockout as the evil Hatsumomo. Plus, Ziyi Zhang (2046) is watchable as the older servant-turned-geisha Sayuri.
Nonetheless, given Li’s smoldering presence and Zhang’s more innocent beauty, their constant cat fighting is inexplicable. Sure, Hatsumomo might be threatened in some way by Sayuri, but it’s never made clear why she feels the need to be so evil and rebellious in what is otherwise a fairly promising and well-heeled lifestyle.
Variation on a Theme
The main overarching thematic element of Memoirs is reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, which told the tale of a boy separated from his parents in Shanghai during World War II. The boy goes through several levels of Hell in his wartime adventures before being reunited with his parents. Where Empire of the Sun succeeds, as a book and as one of Steven Spielberg’s most under appreciated movies, is in depicting the growth of the central character from innocent boy to seasoned young man.
Similar sentiments can be said of other literary adaptations, such as Anthony Minghella’s treatments of The English Patient and Cold Mountain.
With Memoirs, there’s no real sense of a journey or of growth. Instead, it’s an episodic venture with limited potency. One-third of the way through there’s hope for excitement when The Chairman appears and spurs Sayuri’s imagination and ambition to become a geisha.
But the hope that this production might finally find some steam is quickly lost, only to reappear two-thirds of the way through during Sayuri’s snow dance, her premiere performance as a top-rank geisha.
After that stunning sequence, the film falls back into its comatose state. It’s all very rote and, well, by the book. Like a geisha’s kimono, the movie is nice to look at and there’s plenty of craftsmanship on display, but there’s little else to appreciate.