Movie review: ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’
“Memoirs of a Geisha” is an enchanting, yet somewhat disturbing, story of a 9-year-old girl, Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), who develops into a highly desirable geisha.The story begins with stormy emotion, as Chiyo’s parents sell her and her older sister. Though Chiyo rebels against the new home in which she has an opportunity to become a geisha, she fares better than her sister, who becomes a common prostitute.When Chiyo runs into the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a rich man who takes kindly to her – perhaps because of her blue eyes – she sets out to obtain her goal of transforming from a servant to a geisha, or “a moving work of art.” Deep down, she hopes she will once again meet the Chairman and perhaps win his favor.
Celebrated Asian actress Ziyi Zhang takes over the role of portraying the main character as an adult geisha, who earns a new name: Sayuri.The beautiful cinematography and fascinating story of another culture – which elevates marital affairs to a level of sophistication found in martial arts – almost made me forget “Memoirs of a Geisha” tells the tale of objectification and prostitution. Perhaps the juxtaposition is one of the things I find most intriguing.It’s relatively simple to produce a film conveying the heart-wrenching reality of women selling their bodies – and souls. But “Memoirs of a Geisha” skillfully addresses the good, bad and the beautiful: It shows the socioeconomic gain a geisha stands to attain; it expresses competition among geishas and the demand of a woman to repress her true desires; and it seduces audiences with the art of becoming a geisha. Though, I must admit, romanticizing the life of a geisha would have left me less uneasy if a woman had written an actual memoir, as opposed to a man (Arthur Golden) writing a novel.
Still, the film engages the imagination by taking time to seduce audiences with subtle emotions and colorful worlds. If you haven’t seen “Memoirs” yet, it’s a must-see on the big screen.A dressed-up soap operaAs far as my hangups go, my hesitation about “Memoirs of a Geisha” ranks among the more politically correct thoughts I’ve had.
Scanning the Internet Movie Database reveals that many of the principal actors and actresses playing Japanese roles aren’t actually from Japan. If we can’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese, maybe we aren’t ready to make a movie about a facet of Japanese culture that’s probably hard to understand, let alone explain – particularly since this particular story calls for a Japanese heroine with blue eyes.That said, “Memoirs of a Geisha” isn’t the bull in the cultural China shop I feared. And it’s not because of its sensitivity and restraint, either. “Memoirs of a Geisha” is a big, lavish production, as probably befits the adaptation of a best-seller with director Rob Marshall at the helm. It’s bright, stylish and so opulent that the filmmakers reconstructed the streams and cobblestone streets of Tokyo’s Gion district in Thousand Oaks, Calif., according to the Internet Movie Database. To his credit, though, Marshall only freaks out “Chicago”-style once, time-warping a traditional geisha dance into a runway-catwalk diva number worthy of “Zoolander.”
The scale befits Arthur Golden’s historical novel (which I read three years ago but never figured out whether it was based on an actual geisha’s memoir). True to the book, the movie follows a young woman’s transformation in prewar Japan. Suzuka Ohgo plays Chiyo, a girl who travels to a house of geishas from a remote fishing village, before the Zhang Ziyi takes over and the character takes the name of Sayuri.Marshall and Co. go over the top to immerse the viewer in the culture of the geisha in pre-World War II Japan, just as Golden did. But compressing the story into a 145-minute film reveals some things I never picked up from the book. Like the fact that once it centers on Sayuri, her benefactor Mameha (actress Michelle Yeoh) and their power struggle against Hatsumomo (Li Gong) and her protégé, Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) it’s basically a soap opera. Sure, the filmmakers dress up the intrigue in obis, shamisen and sake rituals, but it boils down to money, power and jockeying for social position.I could play deep and postulate about the implications of the fact that a prostitute selling her body would disgust many moviegoers, but they’d flock to see women selling their very souls to become geishas – because a geisha, as the movie repeatedly asserts, is a walking work of art. Or I could just make a “Dynasty” joke.But neither one would be very PC of me.
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