Thursday, December 22, 2005
The focus of Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, focus was on the day-to-day minutiae that made the world of the geishas so uniquely compelling. But the film version of the book hones in on the romance and the power struggles that make for bigger, more dramatic cinema. It’s not just the Chinese actresses that lack a distinctively Japanese flavor; it’s the film as a whole.
And yet director Rob Marshall (Chicago) still manages to craft a visually spectacular epic, beginning with the prologue set in the seaside fishing village where 9-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister are essentially sold into indentured servitude by their father in early 1930s Japan. They’re spirited away to Gion, a geisha district near Kyoto, and delivered separately to “okiya,” or geisha-houses. As young Chiyo learns, it’s not the same as a brothel—experienced geisha, like her house’s imperious Hatsumomo (Gong Li), are respected companions and performers with no sexual obligations. But Chiyo’s chances for becoming a geisha seem slim, until, as a teenager renamed Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), she is taken under the wing of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and taught the ancient art.
Marshall devotes one key montage sequence to Sayuri’s
apprenticeship, an efficient piece of filmmaking that conveys
many of the skills required of a top geisha. But ultimately
it’s a sliver of the story, and screenwriters Robin Swicord
and Doug Wright have too many other key points to hit. There’s
the rivalry between Hatsumomo and Sayuri, Sayuri’s
adoration-from-afar of a kindly man known only as The Chairman
(Ken Watanabe), a bidding war for Sayuri’s virginity, and the
impact of World War II on the geishas’ lifestyle. It’s an
unenviable task, packing so much content into the length of a
feature film, but Memoirs of a Geisha ends up falling
into the trap of so many literary adaptations, from
Shakespeare to Harry Potter: keeping the text, but losing the
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA ( * * ½ )Directed by Rob Marshall.
Starring Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Ken Watanabe.
(PG-13, 145 min.) At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.
That feels true not just of the nuances of geisha life, but of the characters and their relationships as well. Most of the conflicts feel Westernized for our protection—the clashes between Hatsumomo and Sayuri sacrifice gamesmanship for claws-out chick warfare, and Sayuri’s rise is presented less as a triumph over overwhelming odds than the inevitable success of an ambitious go-getter.
And yet, for all its flaws, Memoirs of a Geisha is still often so dazzling to behold that it’s transfixing. The colors in John Myhre’s production design are bold and arresting, as are the spectacular kimonos created by Colleen Atwood. Marshall has a keen eye for individual shots of his characters in nature—a spring garden party, a forest of bamboo framing a driveway—though perhaps those images seem more striking because Memoirs’ Gion looks so much like a back-lot creation.
Ultimately, though, the story Marshall is directing could just as easily have been set in the native lands of its non-Japanese stars. Everyone talks and behaves the way we would expect them to talk and behave in any big Hollywood period spectacle, not necessarily the way people would talk and behave in 1930s Kyoto. Frightened perhaps of making a movie that was “too Japanese,” Marshall and company have made something lovely but indistinct.