After the huge success of directing Oscar-winner Chicago (2003), former choreographer Rob Marshall returns with a period drama that demands more than just a series of scenes tied together with elaborate dance routines. His eye for the sumptuous is put to good use here, but he will need to focus on getting the best from his actors in future, rather than letting their costumes and surroundings speak for them.
Set in an almost idolised Japan of pre-Second World War, Memoirs of a Geisha centres on the secretive world of geishas — beautiful women who specialise in entertaining and providing companionship to men. The film makes it clear they are not prostitutes; they are considered artists skilled in calligraphy, dance and poetry. Most importantly, they must make their clients feel like kings. However a geisha is not permitted to love; not even their clients.
Thrust into this world of social etiquette is nine-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) who is sold along with her sister to a geisha house by her poor fishing family. After her sister is rejected by the head of the geisha house, Chiyo is taken on as a maid, possibly to become a geisha. However, the resident geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li) takes a classic, big-sister-like hatred towards Chiyo. In no time, Chiyo is told she will never become a geisha and her only happiness comes when a man named the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) gifts her a compliment for her eyes and offers her his handkerchief. The Chairman becomes Chiyo’s only light in her drab life as a housemaid.
The geisha training allows Marshall’s talent as a choreographer to shine
Flash forward a few years and an act of good faith from older geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) sees Chiyo become Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi), and the chance to become a geisha. From here on it is a catfight between two competing geisha protégés: Sayuri and Hatsumomo’s strangely-named Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh). The geisha training allows Marshall’s talent as a choreographer to shine as he effortlessly projects captivating dance routines onto the screen. Sayrui’s shows are majestic, and Marshall knows how to get the best from them. Indeed, the whole film has a richness about its attention to detail of its depiction of old-Kyoto. The geisha dresses, the Japanese skylines and the elaborate interiors are a joy to behold.
What is not a joy is listening to the many fine Asian actors struggle with their English to the point it makes them appear very wooden. Surely a film about a Japanese tradition should respect that tradition in casting actors who can speak Japanese? It feels false that so much is bound up in accuracy only for them to be speaking English. Probably the fact that this is a Hollywood production has
something to do with it…
…the final part of the film trudges towards an ever-more-obvious conclusion
To make matters worse, an intrusive, and equally stilted, Sayuri voice-over only serves to reiterate much of what we already know or can guess from what is happening on screen. This seems to be a left over from the Arthur Golden novel on which it is based. The end effect is that you will be hard pressed to not guess the outcome of the film from the voice-over and such early comments as Sayuri stating from the moment she met the Chairman, she was in love with him. In essence, the subject of learning to be a geisha is an interesting premise for a wish-fulfilment Cinderella story. There is no fault with the performances, it is just you wonder why a little more than a basic rivalry/love story could have been made about a tradition the Japanese once held in such high regard. Disappointingly, the disruption to Sayuri’s life in the shape of the Second World War is little more than a quick panic scene and a second flash forward to the end of the war. A lot more could have been made of the chaos this caused, but instead the final part of the film trudges towards an ever-more-obvious conclusion.
Memoirs of a Geisha will be a winner with many just for its mise-en-scene and, as an adaptation, it projects a very important opinion of itself. Ultimately, it feels like it is coasting to a predictable end: after the first third of the film, it descends into whatever Sayuri wants, she will seemingly get — eventually. There is little to truly inspire, even less motivation to care.