Memoirs of a Geisha
Nine-year-old Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi, or Ziyi Zhang as her American agent prefers) is sold into indentured labour in a geisha house. An attempt to run away with her sister fails, and she soon wins the undying enmity of Hatsumomo (Gong Li/Li Gong), the most celebrated geisha in Kyoto. Only a chance encounter with a kindly businessman, known to all as ‘the chairman’ (Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai) saves Sayuri from despair. She vows to become a famous geisha herself, and to win her place at the chairman’s side.
But just what is a geisha? Closer to a courtesan than a prostitute, but also a kind of performance artist, a geisha is schooled in the arts of music and movement, service and conversation, decorum and adornment. Her uniform is a kimono, and her camouflage is white face make-up with cherry red lips. In other words, she represents a highly artificial feminine ideal – a fantasy figure whose allure is built on mystery.
Simultaneously exoticising and at least nominally demystifying the oriental, Memoirs of a Geisha seems to have generated more excitement in anticipation than on the screen. A big, lavish, expensive period romance, directed by Rob Marshall of Chicago fame, Memoirs has run into flak for casting Chinese actresses as the three leading geisha, and you can see how that would rankle from a Japanese perspective, although it’s scarcely more offensive than casting an English actor as a German.
In other respects the casting makes good sense. Firstly, Zhang is a knockout, though I would say that her two big dance numbers here are disappointing, and surely wouldn’t cut it with the experts, you can easily believe she would set every man’s pulse running.
Sayuri is a bit of a simpering naïf in comparison with her roles in House of Flying Daggers and 2046, but Zhang's Crouching Tiger co-star Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li both turn in charismatic and credible performances, despite the considerable handicap of having to speak their (already stilted) dialogue in English.
The rivalry between Sayuri and Hatsumomo is the plot’s strongest motor, and the fact that both Zhang and Gong were once protégés (and lovers) of Chinese director Zhang Yimou undoubtedly lends resonance to the characters’ obsession with beauty and age. Gong in particular has an imperious catty venom which isn’t subtle, but keeps the otherwise tepid melodrama simmering. A bit more vulgarity might have gone a long way.
Shot by Dion Beebe (In the Cut; Chicago) Memoirs is pretty to look at, albeit with a kitschy overload of filtered weather effects (rain, snow, cherry blossoms, nothing stops those geisha girls). But the movie is altogether too superficial for its own good. Screenwriter Robin Swicord has compared the novel to Gone with the Wind – but Gone with the Wind didn’t dispense with the war in a single two-minute scene. Watchable as it is, there’s not enough pain and suffering in this movie to really make us care.