Memoirs of a Geisha

UK release date: 13 January 2006

cast list
Ziyi Zhang
Ken Watanabe
Koji Yakusho
Michelle Yeoh
Kaori Momoi

directed by
Rob Marshall

Told in flashback, Memoirs of a Geisha begins in 1929, as a young Japanese girl named Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister are whisked away from their family to become maids in Geisha houses. Chiyo is immediately separated from her sister, and with the exception of one more encounter in an attempt to escape, she never sees her again. Her future is looking to be a rather bleak one, waiting hand and foot a la Cinderella on the cantankerous O-kami (Kaori Momoi) and Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a rather treacherous Geisha.

Time passes and, under the tutelage of the legendary Geisha Mameha(Michelle Yeoh), Chiyo is trained to become a geisha, renamed Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang). Mameha teaches Sayuri that a geisha is not free to love, or to pursue her own destiny. Her mentor understands the limits of an intimate relationship with a special patron or danna, and teaches Sayuri to keep her feelings to herself. Unlike Hatsumomo, who has become Sayuri’s defiant rival, Mameha knows that a proper geisha cannot afford to indulge her passion for any man.

For the most part, Sayuri follows this code and becomes one of the more popular Geishas around town. Yet, she cannot forget a moment of kindness she experienced at an early age courtesy of a man only known as The Chairman(Ken Watanabe), one that sustains her through years of suffering and war.

On a technical level, Memoirs of a Geisha is a success. The cinematography by Don Beebe is as beautiful as the film’s leading ladies are. 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 made that all Asians look alike and that no one will notice. This is particularly disconcerting given the fact that Japanese-owned Sony Pictures helped finance and release the film.

Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang are all talented and extremely. beautiful actresses, but they are not convincing as Japanese women. The fact that 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 would make up for the surprisingly flat performances the trio deliver. The few Japanese actors and actresses, relegated supporting roles, acquit themselves better than the leads, albeit slightly.

Robin Swicord’s screenplay adaptation of Arthur Goldman’s novel is clichéd, predictable and melodramatic. The characters, saddled with that all-important, award-friendly dialogue, are one-dimensional and bland. After 144 minutes, viewers learn precious little, if anything, about them. The details of geisha life is examined all too briefly, and the journey that the heroine takes over the course of the film lacks even the slightest bit of emotion.

Rob Marshall’s listless directing is another debit. Drained of the creative energy he brought to Chicago, Marshall’s helming comes offas someone who doesn’t seem to be very interested in the material. He seems more engrossed in creating pretty images and turning up the melodrama to a level that would make even Douglas Sirk roll his eyes in disbelief. If this is Marshall showing his true colours talent-wise, then we now know who really directed Chicago: the editor.

Fans of Goldman’s much-beloved novel may be able to get more out of this film, but for the rest of us, Memoirs of a Geisha is cinematicSeppuku.

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