Memoirs of a Geisha

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 01/05/06 11:13:34

"Now we know why Spielberg bailed."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Girls, are you tired of living with your boring old parents? Does a life of servitude or quasi-prostitution sound appealing? Long to be kept by a rich man who will probably dump you as soon as you begin to show your age? Do you yearn to learn how to pour tea and juggle fans?

If the answers to these questions is YES! you need to buy a ticket right now to Rob Marshall’s new film “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

Actually, you won’t learn much about becoming a geisha, but you will get to see lots of moving picture images of snow and cherry blossoms. You’ll watch three outstanding Chinese actresses pretend to be Japanese--a multi-cultural treat as sensitive as watching Rock Hudson play an American Indian in “Winchester ‘73.” But not quite as funny.

Yes, it’s the colorful movie of the Holiday Season, just like the glamour girl you long to be--gorgeous, but without a brain in its pretty little head.

So much for the commercial.

“A story like mine has never been told.”

In the movies? Oh, sure it has, going back at least as far as the silent version of “Stella Dallas” in 1925.

Toss out the exotica for a minute. Director Rob Marshall certainly doesn’t pay much attention to it. You won’t learn anything from “Memoirs of Geisha” about Japan during the Depression or World War II, nor will you gain a better understanding of geisha than you will from a documentay on The History Channel.

With the glamour removed, what’s left? Pretty much what we got from Jane Wyman and Lana Turner in those gloriously campy melodramas from Douglas Sirk 50 years ago, but without the saving grace of the underlying social commentary.

Ziyi Zhang stars as Sayuri, sold along with her older sister as children. The sister, less attractive, goes to the “pleasure domain” part of town. Much is made of this until she runs away and we never hear of or about her again.

Sayuri goes into training to become a geisha, but she falls victim to the jealousy of geisha Hotsumomo (Gong Li, who, if she wore a kimono made of puppy fur, would make a great Cruella DeVil) and is demoted to the rank of house servant.

But soon the nine-year old’s talents, and blue eyes, are spotted by Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and the girl goes into geisha training after all.

So she grows into her role as Kyoto’s greatest geisha—there’s even a scene from the Hollywood backstage story tradition in which Sayuri has to dance and wow an audience of big shots. You get it: “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a geisha.” All along, she dreams of true love with The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a man at least 20 years her senior who once bought her a sno cone. From such moments are undying passion made, at least in movies like this.

A lot of the heavy-breathing occurs because of “mizu,” the practice of selling the geisha-cadet’s virginity to the highest bidder. Who will buy exploration rights to Sayuri? This creates a lot of concern, but little by way of consequence. We need to know more about this custom, especially since much is made of geishas “selling one’s talents instead of one’s body.”

Weaving herself in and out of the story is Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), Sayuri’s best friend at the okiya--sort of a geisha boarding school. Pumpkin is the only personage in the film with a real character arc and was the only one in whom I sensed the least tragedy. The cruel Hotsumomo becomes the victim of her own envy, but she, too, wanders away and while we suspect we know her fate, it isn’t displayed to us as Pumpkin’s in. Much has been written about the possibility of acting nominations coming from this picture, but one for Kudoh is the only one I could support.

Yes, much of the film is gorgeous, but director Rob Marshall doesn’t seem to have a feel for anything but surfaces. “Kill Bill” had a better grip on Japanese culture and traditions.

At best, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is disappointing; at worst, it’s lugubriously melodramatic. Mostly, it’s just a bore.

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