Like so many film directors who enjoy success with their first effort, Rob Marshall stumbles a bit with
his sophomore effort, the screen adaptation of Arthur Golden’s best selling novel MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA.
Although the film is visually stunning and contains a handful of fine performances, the overall on screen result is
pallid and overlong.
Originally Steven Spielberg was attached to direct this film, and he worked with a couple of writers
to turn Golden’s book into a workable screenplay. When Marshall came on board, he jettisoned the older
scripts and hired Robin Swicord to pen a new adaptation. During filming, Doug Wright reportedly did uncredited
rewrites. Despite the efforts of these fine artists, the final movie is stilted. One can appreciate the terrific
production design of John Myhre, the sumptuous costumes of Colleen Atwood, and the painterly cinematography
of Dion Beebe, but there’s an emotional emptiness at the film’s core – especially when it becomes clear along
about the second hour that the movie is supposed to be a love story.
Golden’s novel engendered some controversy when one of his sources about geisha life, Mineko Iwasaki,
sued him for breach of contract, defamation and invasion of privacy. (The suit was settled out of court and Iwasaki
published her own book Geisha, A Life.) The film has garnered its share of press over the casting of three
Chinese actresses in major roles, mainly because of the perceived hostility between China and Japan. But as
co-star Michelle Yeoh has pointed out, it is a common occurrence in films: Americans often play Brits, Brits
are cast as Americans, etc. In either case, this is not the key issue that is wrong with the piece. It’s the direction
and tone that sabotage it.
As I watched the film, I could see why Spielberg might have been drawn to the material. (He continues
to be listed as a producer.) There are echoes of THE COLOR PURPLE as two young sisters are pulled from
their family and are sent apart. But whereas in the Alice Walker adaptation, that became a key issue for the
central character, in this adaptation of Golden’s fiction, the matter is resolved early in the film. There’s a brief
reunion before the older sister disappears and is never mentioned again.
Instead, the main character Chiyo, who dreams of being a geisha, sees her hopes dashed when the
malevolent Hatsumomo (Gong Li) takes a dislike to her. Set up by the older woman, Chiyo is forced
to perform menial labor and is denied the chance to learn the ways of geisha. A chance meeting with an
older man, known only as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), sets her on a different path, however. She
is mentored by Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and eventually becomes Sayuyri (Ziyi Zhang), the most desirable
and best-known geisha in the area.
The rivalry between Hatsumomo and Sayuri is one of the key elements to the first half of the film and it’s
perhaps interesting to note that these actresses also played rivals for the same man in Wong Kar-Wai’s far
superior 2046. (Off screen, Zhang supplanted Gong as the muse – and purported lover – of Chinese filmmaker
Zhang Yimou, adding another layer of frisson to their scenes together.) While neither appears completely
comfortable with English, Gong delivers the more memorable turn and she gets a fiery sendoff that makes
one miss her presence in the remainder of the movie.
The best performance in the film comes from Yeoh, who previously collaborated with Ziyi Zhang in
Ang Lee’s CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Fluent in English, the gorgeous actress lends
a gravitas to her part. She is a commanding screen presence and every scene that she is in is memorable.
Zhang suffers a bit by comparison. Equally attractive, she seems uncomfortable speaking her lines in
English (the stilted dialogue doesn’t help). When required to perform in nonverbal sequences – such as a dance
scene when Sayuri makes the equivalent of her “debut” – Zhang is terrific. But like Penelope Cruz, she seems
a bit at sea when she has to perform in a language other than her native tongue.
For my taste, the first half-hour to forty-five minutes of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA dragged. The film
didn’t really come to life until Chiyo is taken in by Mameha and her training in the secrets of geisha life begins.
By that point, I had almost lost total interest.
Also, the filmmakers' insistence on pushing the romance as a central point of the movie did not feel organic.
The audience doesn’t really come to know The Chairman well enough to root for the couple to get together,
so their love story possesses an anticlimactic feel to it, leaving the movie as something that is gorgeous to view,
but which ultimately feels hollow.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content
Running time: 145 mins
Viewed at Magno Review One
|Memoirs of a Geisha
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.