Memoirs of a Geisha

Reviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 03/31/06 12:57:25

"A visually beautiful tale of sexual subjugation."
3 stars (Just Average)

Prior to the release of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” there was so much controversy over the casting of three talented Chinese actresses — Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li — as Japanese geishas. Ignoring their box office clout (Zhang and Li are huge draws at the Japanese box office), many complaints wanted the film to portray a level of authenticity, which would include Japanese actors. None of those protesting the castings, however, seemed to have any problem with the director, screenwriter, source writer and numerous crew members being American. Nor did they protest the hiring of Rob Marshall, the man behind the highly overrated “Chicago,” strictly on the grounds that he’s not a very good director. Maybe then this movie would be more than a beautiful, hollow shell of a picture.

When it comes to Hollywood presentations of Asia, why does every character speak in that slow, quiet whisper? Does it represent grace? Is it supposed to represent elegance? Do these voices actually exist in real life? Is anyone really interested in hearing those slow, slinky voices, all of which ooze a genteel sex appeal? Oh, um, I think I just answered that myself. Never mind.

But while we’re at it, why is every Hollywood movie set in Japan filmed through a soft filter lens? Every traditional Japanese garden and Buddhist temple looks as though it’s constantly bathed in a misty haze, even in the middle of the brightest summer day. Do such vapors even exist outside these highly romanticized versions of Japan?

Such considerations, however, don’t seem to apply to Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” With its silky voices and smoky landscapes, the Japan of “Geisha” is clearly not an exact replica of reality. This Japan exists in a world shared by samurai, effortless nobility and quiet porcelain women in designer kimonos. This isn’t a Japan that was lost in the translation, but exists as a downright fabrication.

But even through the decidedly Americanized depiction, it’s perfectly clear this film is gorgeous. Cinematographer Dion Beebe and production designer John Myhre, and their entire teams, deserve all the credit for crafting a fantasy world that is even beautiful in its flaws. From the dirty, rain-soaked alleys of the Geisha district to the rivers running red with dye, every inch of this overly-long 145 minute movie is a perfect picture postcard of a Japan overshadowed by neon lights and trendy sushi. Alas, if only all this beauty wasn’t also overshadowed by such a dismal, unwatchable story.

Daughters of poor, sick fishermen parents, Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her older sister are taken to Kyoto and sold to separate geisha houses. The filmmakers begin their unconventional love story with two children being sold into a glorified form of sexual slavery? Really? Okay then. At nine years old, Chiyo isn’t guaranteed a slot in geisha school, but must earn it through the respect of the house mother (Kaori Momoi). Befriending the house’s more experienced other geisha student Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum as a child, Youki Kudoh as an adult) and butting heads with the house’s top earning geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), Chiyo learns just how meaningless her life is as she loses favor and is demoted to lowly house servant. It isn’t until the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), with two geishas in tow, stops to buy her a treat that she sees her true potential. It is then that she vows to fulfill her destiny and elevate her status to the height of prostitute…er, geisha.

For some unforeseen reason, we’re expected to swallow the beauty and nobility of the geisha life as something more than basic prostitution. Sure, she learns to dance with parasols and fans, and she even learns proper conversation techniques, but it’s all a mask in order to sell off her virginity. When a teenage Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) is offered the chance to study beneath legendary Kyoto geisha Mameha (a stunning Michelle Yeoh), she jumps at the chance because in her small world, becoming a geisha is a big step up. Through her very limited frame of reference, the geisha role is a big honor, but she’s still being forced to choose between two jobs that stink of rotten fruit. Geisha may be better than servant, especially because she’ll be able to earn her price back faster, but she’ll still be stuck with an inedible lemon. No matter what happens, she’ll always have a sour deal.

If you’re still not convinced she’s getting the short end, consider this: Even though her role is constantly referred to as a living work of art, all of her dancing and witticisms are merely to attract the highest price bidder for her virginity. While Chiyo, renamed Sayuri for her geisha life — why not just go all the way and call her Amber Goodhumps? — dreams of a real life with her beloved Chairman, she’s being forced to romance his fickle friend in order to drive her price up. It’s like making the leap from street hooker to high-priced call girl. If there wasn’t this exotic foreignness surrounding the whole affair, the movie would probably be seen as a promotion of prostitution, and it wouldn’t really be wrong. Sayuri will eventually lament the crass transformation of the once-exotic geisha into a postcard picture for American G.I.s to send to their Midwestern girlfriends, but forever existing in this subjugating system, she’s completely missing the point. Having become little more than a glorified model, she can finally escape a system that values her sexual worth more than her value as a person. The movie itself may be visually stunning, but the melodramatic sex slave story is anything but.

Even though it was set primarily in the Pacific Northwest, “Snow Falling on Cedars” commits many of the same technical Japanese film techniques. The Japanese characters constantly whisper, and everyone and everything is always drowning in that ubiquitous haze. That movie, however, is not about sexual slavery, but about post-war fear of the Japanese. Maybe that’s why “Snow Falling on Cedars” is a good movie, while “Memoirs of a Geisha” is not.

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