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Memoirs of a Geisha

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/16/05 00:05:22

"As authentically exotic as a Trader Vic's in a shopping mall"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“Agony and beauty live side by side” is a statement uttered early on in “Memoirs of a Geisha” and by the time the film ended nearly 2 ½ hours later, I knew exactly what it meant. This is a film that is beautiful to look at but absolutely agonizing to watch–a gruesome blend of faux exoticism, limp storytelling and pretentious melodrama (as well as some admittedly ravishing visuals) that is told in such a sluggish manner that to say that it is as boring as watching paint dry would be a great insult to the fine art and tradition of paint-watching.

The film is based on the novel by Arthur Golden, a work that, according to the press notes, spent over two years on the New York Times best-seller list–an achievement that sounds impressive until you realize that the same could be said about such other deathless pieces of literature as “The Bridges of Madison County” and “The Da Vinci Code.” Beginning in 1929, the film opens as nine-year-old Japanese girl Chiyo is sold by her impoverished parents into virtual slavery at a Kyoto geisha house owned by the fearsome Auntie (Tsai Chin) and dominated by cruel head geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li). At first, the plan is to groom Chiyo to become a geisha as well but the vindictive and jealous Hatsumomo puts a stop to that.

Years later, Chiyo (now played by Ziyi Zhang) is still slaving away when rival geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) arrives and offers to take her under her wing and make her the most popular geisha in all of Japan. Under her tutelage, she learns everything that she needs to know–a crash-course that includes lessons in wearing extremely uncomfortable shoes, engaging in lavish production numbers at the drop of a hit and pretending to look interested while powerful men speak to them about the intricacies of sumo wrestling. Oh yeah, there is one other aspect to discuss–best summed up when someone asks Chiyo, “Did your mother ever tell you about the eel and the cave?”

Before long, Chiyo, now dubbed Sayuri, is the talk of the town and a bidding war erupts for the privilege of claiming her virginity. Despite more skullduggery from Hatsumomo, many powerful men bid Sayuri but not the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), the political bigwig that she met as a young girl and who has nursed a crush on ever since. From there, Sayuri becomes the most famous geisha in Japan until that darn world war kicks into gear and she is sent to the hills to ride things out. Years later, Sayuri is asked by the Chairman and his partners to return to the ways of the geisha to impress an American bigwig whose influence is a key to Japan’s post-war dream.

This all sounds exciting in theory but “Memoirs of a Geisha” tells what seems like an agreeably soapy saga in the most excruciatingly boring manner possible. I don’t know how the book handled this material but the film seems to go to astounding lengths to suck all the life out of the events that we see. There is never a single moment in which any of the characters act or seem like authentic human beings–director Rob Marshall treats them as little more than mannequins that he can poses in pretty positions. This is a film that is so unwilling to generate any heat or excitement that after stretching out the build-up to the night of Sayuri’s defloration to absurd lengths, we hardly get to see any of the big night before the scene fades away–certainly not enough to guess whether or not the lucky bidder got his yens worth. This probably shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise because the story seems to go to enormous lengths to suggest that sex is the least important thing that a proper man goes to a geisha for; when the crude American towards the end indicates that he actually is interested in sex with Sayuri, her response reminded me of the part in “Casablanca” when Captain Renault was shocked to discover that there was gambling going on.

The film is so lifeless that Marshall, who got this gig on the heels of his work on the wildly overrated “Chicago,” does something here that I would have assumed to be an impossibility; he takes three of the most electrifying actresses in the world today–Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh–and somehow figures out how to make them seem like compete bores. As Sayrui, Zhang is certainly beautiful enough for the part but you never get any sense of what makes her so special or compelling to everyone who comes across her path–could this really be the same actress who was so charismatic in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “2046"?. Yeoh is a little better as her mentor but doesn’t get to do much of anything that we haven’t seen Liam Neeson do in his last half-dozen appearances. Even though her character is basically a two-dimensional ogre, Gong Li does bring some momentary excitement to the proceedings during her scenes and when she finally disappears from the story for good, it is the final nail in the film’s coffin.

A couple of weeks ago, as part of the avalanche of stuff that I receive at the end of every year by movie studios desperate to get their films nominated for awards, I received a big book on the making of “Memoirs of a Geisha.” I haven’t quite gotten around to cracking it open yet but it has been sitting on an end table near me for a while and I have begun to realize that this book is actually a pretty good representation of the film itself–both items are expensive, glossily produced and filled with beautiful images but there is no sense of genuine life or emotion to be had in either of them. What should have been a sumptuous and emotionally devastating bit of Oscar bait has been transformed into a lugubrious lump that just sits there ponderously and does nothing.

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