The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, October 14, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Memoirs of a Geisha

Originally published 12/19/05
Full review behind the jump

Memoirs of a Geisha

: Rob Marshall
: Robin Swicord, based on the book by Arthur Golden
: Steven Spielberg, Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher
: Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Li Gong, Suzuka Ohgo, Ken Watanabe, Kôji Yakusho, Karoi Momoi, Tsai Chin, Youki Kudoh, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Randall Duk Kim, Shizuko Hoshi

I’m searching and searching through my impressions of
Memoirs of a Geisha, this handsome adaptation of Arthur Golden’s popular romance, wondering why it did not grip or entrance me. It is impeccably designed and filmed – faithfully transporting the story to the screen and surrounding it with vivid design, luxurious costumes, a lush John Williams musical score and some of the most bewitchingly silky hair ever put before a camera. It tells a story of sadness, passion, betrayal and, finally, love. Every necessary ingredient has been supplied for a sweeping piece of classic Hollywood storytelling.

And yet I must answer that my heart did not sing and no tears swelled behind my eyes. I have the evidence of my memories telling me that similar movies have succeeded at producing this result. Why does
Geisha, for all its attributes, fail?

Perhaps it’s that it is
too pretty when more anguish is needed underlying, too grandiosely tragic when other, more intimate fears should be accounted for, and so wrapped up in glamor it forgets the essence of this tale is female slavery. It is committed to the emotion which prevails in the moment, but rarely looks back for resonance, a movie cannot just lift you and drop you alternatively for two hours – it must carry you along.

It ends in blossom but begins in darkness – at night in a coastal fishing village in 1920’s Japan, a father (Mako) sells his two daughters to a man with a wagon. The older sister, Satsu (Samantha Futerman) is sent to a house of prostitution. The other, Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), is too young for such a fate, but has a quality to her eyes everyone notices. She’s taken into the care of Mother (Kaori Momoi), a sort of guru and madam for geisha – the artisans of escort who rigorously train themselves to dance, look superhumanly elegant, pour tea and flatter the men who pay for them.

The cruelty of Chiyo’s separation first from parents, then from sister, is not hidden, but it doesn’t reverberate either – the movie follows the advice of Mother and her switch-cracking majordomo Auntie (Tsai Chin): forget about them and embrace becoming geisha. In this the movie is reminiscent of the much better Raise the Red Lantern, in which an intelligent and self-assured young woman sinks into the sexual gamesmanship of her fellow concubines, simply because that is all her life as property now allows her.

And the star of that movie, Li Gong, is here as the house’s top earner, Hatsumomo, who senses the little girl’s potential and wages a campaign of terror and manipulation against her. But Chiyo’s rescued by the patronage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), who holds the record for the highest amount ever paid for a geisha’s virginity: “Have I ever told you about the eel in the cave?” Mameha asks her young charge.

Chiyo trains to the point of suffering in arcane arts like fan flipping, shuffling on high platform shoes and providing teasing glimpses of her wrist from the folds of her silk kimono. And she has a goal, too, to build a reputation that can catch the attention of the handsome Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who saw her crying one day and bought her a treat. The strength with which she yearns for him annihilates the sad girl Chiyo from the fishing village, and she becomes the elite geisha Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang).

It’s a credit to the movie’s flow and casting that I didn’t notice the precise moment the child actress was swapped out for the grown-up one, they are simply the same character aging steadily. Though the passages of her rise to prominence are educational in their way, they fade in importance because Sayuri has essentially stopped evolving as a character – her motives are frozen and she has little control over her fate in any scene, only what she can achieve by charming. When Japan is consumed by war and she’s hidden away as a common laborer, we don’t see the years of humble work stoop or muss her, it’s treated simply as an interruption that makes it harder to get good clothes.

Far more engrossing are a pair of supporting characters who fade in and out over the years. Pumpkin (played as a child by Zoe Weizenbaum, as an adult by Youki Kudoh) is her only friend and confidant growing up, but Sayuri’s success threatens her chances to inherit the house from Mother, so she first becomes a willing instrument of Hatsumomo’s destructive whims, then later turns up as a dark reflection of how Sayuri might have ended up without such powerful friends. Then there is Nobu-san (Kôji Yakusho), a disfigured and severe businessman and the Chairman’s closest friend. For Sayuri he is an assignment, and a difficult one, as he knows what he looks like to women and despises and distrusts the empty flattery – but she is too perceptive by half in her attentions, and against his own expectations he begins to burn for her.

Perhaps it’s that the story too easily bails Sayuri out of the enticing complications brought on by such twists. Director Marshall, who breathed such dynamic life into the musical Chicago in his feature debut, seems to miss the drama here, or perhaps, having plumbed the story to its depths, found there wasn’t much to be had but couldn’t stray far from such beloved source material. The performances are uniformly right – just larger-than-life enough for sumptuous melodrama – and it’s worth re-iterating that the design is frequently breathtaking. But I think he could have found more of the small and intimate, slipped more humanity into many of the scenes – like a hair-raising sequence where the young Chiyo attempts an escape across a wet tile roof.

Those little touches can do a lot to jolt the simply effective up to the next tier. But that might have just been an extra coat of silk around the illusion – Memoirs of a Geisha is essentially a picturesque waiting game, two characters are supposed to say something to each other, and when they do the music will swell and the movie will end. Locked into that destiny, it prevents itself from following up on some provocative possibilities, and becoming the movie that might have swept me away.


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