Cast: Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri), Ken Watanabe (The Chairman), Michelle Yeoh (Mameha), Li Momo (Hatsumomo)
Screenplay: Robin Swicord
Director: Rob Marshall
It will always be difficult for me to reconcile my fascination with Oriental culture and some of their less than morally justifiable practices of old. The concept of the Geisha has no apparent Western equals at first glance, but if deconstructed to its basic idea, the Geisha is little more than a “high-class prostitute”, where the ritual before the “sexual exchange” is as important as the act itself if not more.
To capture the elusive world of the Geisha, director Rob Marshall (Nine, Chicago) embellishes it with beautiful women living in somewhat acceptable circumstances that cannot compare to the underworld of the common prostitute (whether this is accurate or not alludes me). Even as they are openly abused by matrons and male admirers, these women live in typical Japanese houses that are rich with Oriental motifs and are, for the most part, charming and interesting places to live. Sadly, the setting, which is quite beautiful to look at, tends to overwhelm a story that is not nearly as detail-oriented.
Despite being a Japanese film about Japanese traditions, the cast is made up by well-known Chinese and Malaysian actors that guaranteed the film studio a broader overseas appeal. Ziyi Zhang (House of Flying Daggers, Rush Hour 2) plays Sayuri, the protagonist of the story. Due to her parent’s extreme poverty and her mother’s sudden turn of poor health, she is sold to a Geisha house when she is only a little girl. Her older sister is not as “fortunate” and ends up at a common whore house. Though the change is unsurprisingly traumatic, the shock is not as convincingly depicted as it could have been, barely dwelling on the desire for them to reunite and escape their harsh new reality.
While the book (which I read a few years ago) is a rags-to-riches type of story that gains traction as the protagonist gains self-confidence and experience as a Geisha and as a woman; the film reduces Sayuri’s struggle to a competitive one with other Geishas, and a romantic one with “The Chairman”, played with ease by the seasoned Ken Watanabe (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Letters from Iwo Jima).
When compared to all of the elements that make up the film, it is precisely the plot that feels the weakest, opting to be melodramatic instead of inspirational, and cliché instead of original. The cast, starting with Ziyi Zhang, does wonders to deliver credible and resonant performances. The best are the exchanges between her and Li Momo, who plays the closest thing to an antihero as Hatsumomo. Though their competition is rather pathetic if we consider what it is they are competing for, a powerful message can still be extracted from the story: humans, and especially those with a big spirit, will do almost anything to survive, even if that means degrading oneself to other people’s generosity.
As much as I try to find merits in the melodrama, which is more soapy than affecting, Memoirs of a Geisha comes across as a cheap reduction of the very charming book it is based on.