© 2005 Ray Wong
Stars: Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Li Gong, Ken Watanabe, Tsai Chin, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Mako, Youki Kudoh, Koji Yakusho
Director: Rob Marshall
Writers: Robin Swicord, Doug Wright (based on novel by Arthur Golden)
Distributor: Sony Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature subject matter, sexual content
Running time: 145 minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total Score – 6.8 out of 10
I had such high hopes for MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA because, first of all, I’m Asian, and second, I love Arthur Golden’s lyrical novel. I’m also a fan of Rob Marshall since I worked with him ten years ago. What transpires to the big screen, though, is unfortunately short of spectacular.
When their mother falls ill, sisters Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and Tanaka (Togo Igawa) are sold to the a geisha house and a brothel respectively by their downtrodden fisherman father (Mako). Because of Chiyo’s beauty and rare “eyes of water,” she is favored to be sent to geisha school. We’re reminded that geishas are not prostitutes; they’re skilled and graceful artists, adored and respected. The house’s favorite geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong) is jealous of Chiyo, worrying that one day Chiyo will replace her, and she treats Chiyo with disdain. Later, Hatsumomo forces Chiyo to destroy an expensive kimono worn by her rival, Mameha (Yeoh). Unable to pay off her debt, Chiyo is taken off the geisha school and reduced to be a maid.
One day, a broken Chiyo meets the dashing Chairman (Watanabe), who shows her kindness. Chiyo vows to grow up to be a geisha, so she can one day see the Chairman again. With the help of Mameha (who knows all about Hatsumomo and that Chiyo was just a scapegoat), Chiyo quickly learns to become Japan’s most celebrated geisha, now named Sayuri. Of course, Mameha’s intention isn’t totally pure. With her new fame, Sayuri is tangled in a web of deceit, scheming and rivalry with Hatsumomo and her protégé, Pumpkin (Kudoh). As she pines for the Chairman, Sayuri is reminded once and again that geishas are like delicate flowers or prized paintings; they are to be pursued, but never to pursue their own destinies.
There’s really no good way of condensing the story of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA into 100 words. It’s also a difficult task to condense the immense novel into a 2-hour movie. The large cast of characters and complicated subplots add richness to the novel, but become cumbersome on film. Writers Swicord (PRATICAL MAGIC) and first-timer Wright fail to bring Golden’s richly layered and nuanced story to life. Instead, what we see is something that is culturally superficial and stiff and humorless. The script feels heavy and stifling. Secondary characters are reduced to footnotes. The women are clearly the focus here, so the men (including the pivotal ones such as the Chairman, the Baron, or Mr. Nobu) are not allowed to show any depth.
The performances are generally respectable. Zhang (2046) is convincing as the fragile but strong, romantically desperate Sayuri. She’s giddy as the young girl, and she matures as her character grows older. As Mameha, Yeoh (TOMORROW NEVER DIES) has one of the best roles in the film. She shows grace and gentleness, and a much-needed sense of humor. In comparison, Gong (EROS) is a bitch from hell, and she does a great job portraying the villainous character. Ohgo (YEAR ONE IN THE NORTH) is particularly impressive as young Chiyo.
The men are largely serviceable. Watanbe (BATMAN BEGINS), as Chiyo/Sayuri’s object of affection, is refined and restrained. Famed Japanese actor Yakusho, best-known to American audience as Mr. Sugiyama in SHALL WE DANCE, is affecting and sincere as Nobu. Tagawa (ELEKTRA) plays the Baron with adequate sliminess. Veteran Japanese actor Mako has a brief cameo as Chiyo’s father.
The truth is, the actors are most often lost in the yarn of interweaving storylines. Unfortunately, director Marshall (CHICAGO) spends too much time framing tight, beautiful shots of tapestries and gardens and architecture, and not enough time developing the characters. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is a beautiful film, with exquisite details and artistry. But buried in the fine art is a hollow shell of storytelling. Many plot threads are left untied, and we’re constantly reminded of what we’re supposed to feel for these characters, but never truly experience it. Like the audience at a geisha theater, we’re only allowed to watch from a distance, but never to reach deep into the characters’ hearts. So, perhaps it’s fitting that MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is like the geisha herself – something to desire and imagine, but never to really know and feel.