Memoirs of a Geisha

on Monday, April 4, 2011
Midway through this lush adaptation of Arthur Golden's 1998 bestseller, kindly veteran geisha Mameha (played by Michelle Yeoh) defines her profession as "a moving work of art". And that's what director Rob Marshall - previously responsible for Chicago - has striven with every sinew to create himself: his film is replete with stately compositions, shimmering landscapes, and carefully coordinated colour schemes. Marshall also brings some of his skills as a choreographer - arguably the film's most successful scene is one where apprentice geisha Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi) must seal her ascension to the sisterhood with a public dance, a scene that Marshall infuses with unexpected emotion and beauty.

Memoirs of a Geisha
Production year: 2005Country: USACert (UK): 12Runtime: 145 minsDirectors: Rob MarshallCast: Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Koji Yakusho, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Ziyi ZhangMore on this filmMuch ink has been spilled over this long-gestating project - once destined for Steven Spielberg, until he backed away. Some of it is over the perceived lack of understanding in the west of the geisha's calling; though, in its defence, the film draws a clear distinction between the geisha house - where all is genteel and ornamental - and the brothel down the road. (And it's only with the arrival of the American military after the war that the geishas find themselves reduced to the status of simple prostitutes.) Similarly, many have been annoyed at the casting of the three female leads - Zhang, Gong Li, and Yeoh - all stars of Chinese cinema, and really rather obviously not Japanese. The unstated thinking behind this is objectionable - no one at whom the film is aimed can be expected to tell the difference. On the other hand, it says something about the increased clout of far eastern cinema that this very Hollywood production can confidently import three not-especially-good-English-speakers.

For this is what this film is: pure, undiluted Hollywood, with all its consequent strengths and weaknesses. We are treated to a sturdily constructed melodrama that goes straight for the jugular: a little girl sold into slavery, who blinks back the tears and pirouettes her way to emotional liberation and the man of her dreams by mastering the arts of hair-dressing, make-up and, most importantly, outmanoeuvring her rivals. Breaking the Waves this isn't. As Sayuri, the memorialist of the title, Zhang Ziyi glows appropriately; Gong Li leads with a sneer as her haughty rival Hatsumomo, and Yeoh suffuses all her scenes with unambiguous sweetness. All three are effectively hamstrung, however, by their difficulties with the dialogue, though after a while you do filter out the remorseless woodenness and lack of expressiveness. And, despite it all, there are instances of basic dramatic power that can't be denied: Sayuri's climactic cat-fight with Hatsumomo, the aforementioned dance scene, and a humiliating encounter with a powerful aristocrat.

In a nutshell, this is contemporary japonesque of a very expensive, beautifully engineered kind. It may be a long way from the actuality of the geisha world - and it's certainly a long way from the political realities it's set in, as the final scenes, when the second world war brutally intrudes, make it clear that the preceding action takes place during Japan's frantic 1930s militarism. Would it have been served better by more rigorous attention to authenticity? It's almost beside the point: universal, cross-cultural drama is what the film is after, and quite how much you can take of that is a matter for individual conscience.

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