Told in flashback, Memoirs of a Geisha begins in 1929, as a youngJapanese girl named Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister are whisked away fromtheir family to become maids in Geisha houses. Chiyo is immediatelyseparated from her sister, and with the exception of one more encounter inan attempt to escape, she never sees her again. Her future is looking to bea rather bleak one, waiting hand and foot a la Cinderella on thecantankerous O-kami (Kaori Momoi) and Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a rathertreacherous Geisha.
Time passes and, under the tutelage of the legendary Geisha Mameha(Michelle Yeoh), Chiyo is trained to become a geisha, renamed Sayuri (ZiyiZhang). Mameha teaches Sayuri that a geisha is not free to love, or topursue her own destiny. Her mentor understands the limits of an intimaterelationship with a special patron or danna, and teaches Sayuri to keep herfeelings to herself. Unlike Hatsumomo, who has become Sayuri’s defiantrival, Mameha knows that a proper geisha cannot afford to indulge herpassion for any man.
For the most part, Sayuri follows this code and becomes one of the morepopular Geishas around town. Yet, she cannot forget a moment of kindness sheexperienced at an early age courtesy of a man only known as The Chairman(Ken Watanabe), one that sustains her through years of suffering andwar.
On a technical level, Memoirs of a Geisha is a success. Thecinematography by Don Beebe is as beautiful as the film’s leading ladiesare. The production design by John Myhre and Colleen Atwood’s costumes arealso impressive, while John Williams contributes a lush musical score.
Unfortunately, this is where the accolades end and the mistakes begin,the worst being the borderline racist assumption the film makers have madethat all Asians look alike and that no one will notice. This is particularlydisconcerting given the fact that Japanese-owned Sony Pictures helpedfinance and release the film.
Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang are all talented and extremelybeautiful actresses, but they are not convincing as Japanese women. The factthat Zhang and Li are Chinese and Yeoh is Malaysian might have something todo with that. But even if they were of Japanese origin, I doubt it wouldmake up for the surprisingly flat performances the trio deliver. The fewJapanese actors and actresses, relegated supporting roles,acquit themselves better than the leads, albeit slightly.
Robin Swicord’s screenplay adaptation of Arthur Goldman’s novel isclichd, predictable and melodramatic. The characters, saddled with thatall-important, award-friendly dialogue, are one-dimensional and bland. After144 minutes, viewers learn precious little, if anything, about them. Thedetails of geisha life is examined all too briefly, and the journey that theheroine takes over the course of the film lacks even the slightest bit ofemotion.
Rob Marshall’s listless directing is another debit. Drained of thecreative energy he brought to Chicago, Marshall’s helming comes offas someone who doesn’t seem to be very interested in the material. He seemsmore engrossed in creating pretty images and turning up the melodrama to alevel that would make even Douglas Sirk roll his eyes in disbelief. If thisis Marshall showing his true colors talent-wise, then we now know who reallydirected Chicago: the editor.
Fans of Goldman’s much-beloved novel may be able to get more out of thisfilm, but for the rest of us, Memoirs of a Geisha is cinematicSeppuku.