Film review: Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Memoirs of a Geisha 2

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.

Memoirs of a Geisha


2 thoughts on “Film review: Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

  1. This is the most unfairly maligned film of the year. Some critics took it upon themselves to be the defenders of Japanese culture (without fully researching their arguments) and, in the process, betrayed their own racism. “The film is inauthentic because the actresses do not wear matronly bouffants,” one said. Riiiiiight. Matronly bouffants are a Western stereotype! But in any case, some of them do and some don’t! THAT’S authenticity. I guess critics wouldn’t know that writing reviews without seeing the film or walking out long before it’s over (some, such as Jeff Wells, do).

    Anyway, it’s a fantastic film and more than deserving of multiple Academy award nominations – which it may not get thanks to the fact that so many people decided they wanted to use the film as the sacrificial lamb for a half-baked debate about international politics, rather consider that pan-Asian casting for major roles is NOTHING new (it’s true of House of Flying Daggers, The Joy Luck Club and even Crouching Tiger) and that this film’s production might represent international cooperation at its best.

    Look out for Gong Li and Youki Kudoh in RICHLY developed supporting roles. The supporting males, while obviously not as well developed since they spend less time in the geisha quarters, still give incredible performances. Ken Watanabe was excellent, but I particularly enjoyed the performance of the actor playing Nobu. Oprah is right about the sets and costumes; they (amongst other things) make you want to savor every moment of the film. Some people have argued that the brilliant colors make it seem like some sort of Orientalist fantasy. Truth is that this would only be the case if we saw a departure from a more sedate West to a flamboyant East; instead, the film opens in a rather sedate part of Japan and then takes us to the more colorful geisha district (which introduces this fascinating paradox of great suffering in a milieu of tremendous beauty). We know from Chicago that it’s simply Rob Marshall’s aesthetic to make everything the height of beauty, even if it’s a slum. God forbid ENTERTAINMENT CIRCLES should be presented as visually spectacular! The film is by turns funny, moving and, yes, thrilling. Gasps in the audience for the film’s third act gave way to sniffles. Ziyi Zhang really managed any language difficulties well; her face has this ripple effect when she’s emoting. It’s stunning to behold. If I were voting for the Oscars, I’d definitely give her a nomination at the very least. And homegirl can dance, too! Her performance and the film itself are not boring at all; audience members laughed when she was trying to be funny and sighed when she was suffering. IMO, too much happens in the film for it to get boring; there’s a strong balance between the rivalries, the details about geisha entertainment and the romance. In the final scene, it all comes full circle. I won’t tell you how. See for yourself.

    My #1 film of the year. Brokeback Mountain, Chronicles of Narnia, Howl’s Moving Castle, King Kong and Grizzly Man aren’t far behind.

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