Memoirs of a Geisha
2005Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li
story like mine should never be told…”
So narrates Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) in the opening scenes of Memoirs of a Geisha. After almost two and a half hours of this muck, I couldn’t agree more: this story should never be inflicted upon anyone, at least, not in the capacity with which it’s told here.
The lives of the geisha are ones shrouded in secrecy. Hidden beneath their painted faces they represent an ideal woman to a phallocentric world, one that provides service and company but remains hidden and anonymous in her personal life. While not on the same level as common prostitutes, they remain not too far removed despite the grace and class attached to their profession. Nonetheless, as the proprietress of one geisha house comments: “it’s not flesh we’re selling here, but mystery.”
Rob Marshall’s film prefers to retain that mystery, however, as it reveals absolutely no insight into the actual lives of the geisha. The film regards them with a certain awe and nostalgia. Rather than penetrating beneath that layer of makeup, Marshall’s film almost desires the anonymity of their role. The film only hints at the suffering they surely must endure. Stripped of their personal romance and forced into a position of subservience, Marshall apparently can only distinguish beauty under such circumstances.
Throughout the film I felt very little attachment to Sayuri, the central character. Does her story not inspire sympathy or pity? Not necessarily. I think her story in another film, or perhaps even in the Arthur Golden book upon which this is based, would be a sad one; but I never felt as if this film provided any weight to her plight. The only hint of her former life comes in the opening scene in which we witness her father, a widowed fisherman, selling her to an ominous man who then brings her to the geisha house where she is raised. Later when she receives a letter informing her that her father has passed on, we don’t share her sorrow because we never really got to know who he was or what affect he had on her.
Even her training as a geisha appears rushed, occupying a scant five minutes of the film and told in a montage so hackneyed it feels more like parody than sincerity. What should have been the most crucial segment of the film becomes something of an afterthought. Think of all the anguish her character might have experienced in becoming what ultimately is nothing more than an object of men’s desires. Not to mention that this wasn’t her true choice in life. But never mind that: one minute she’s an orphaned girl forced into the role of indentured servant, the next she’s a glamorous geisha entertaining the most affluent of men. Beyond that, who cares what her personal hopes and dreams are in life aside from obtaining that dreamy chairman (Ken Wantanabe) she met as a young girl. Right?
This is the rotten core at the center of Marshall’s film. His only concern being to photograph his glamorous women as magnificently as possible. To that extent, he succeeds marvelously as his film is perhaps the most beautiful I’ve seen in some years. It has all the wondrous color of In the Mood for Love, combined with the grand composition of a Yimou Zhang film. But it offers little else to appease the audience.
To make matters worse, it contains no sense of pacing, nor does it provide any engaging conflict, as it presents no real source of true antagonism beyond the trumped-up and played-out villainous stereotypes. Gong Li, who was so ravishing and intense earlier this year in Wong Kar-Wai’s The Hand, plays a villain etched from clichés here. She does what she can in the role of Hatsumomo, a rival geisha, and still comes off as the best part of the film, but ultimately she’s reduced to a background character whose only function is to look beautiful and act mean to Sayuri.
The other potential for intriguing conflict arrives in the form of World War II. Despite the epic proportions of such a tragedy, it plays out here only as a minor inconvenience for the characters. At most, all we see are a few Japanese soldiers prowling the streets, barking orders in Japanese. Unfortunately, no one in this particular village will understand them since they all speak English, but with heavy accents and poor syntax. What may be more surprising to the soldiers is that no less than three of the village’s inhabitants are, in fact, not Japanese at all.
I suppose it is a bit wrongheaded to cast Chinese women in the role of Japanese geisha, but I feel that the decision, far from being motivated by ignorance or overt racism, is more the product of greed since the studio knew that the star power of its three glamorous leads would be a big draw at the box office. Why bother going for authenticity with a lesser-know Japanese star when you can cast not one, but two of the stars of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Since the film has been marketed toward an American audience anyway, I suppose they felt as if we wouldn’t notice.
In the end, the film contains plenty of potential, but no real reward. To paraphrase another current theatrical release: when you sacrifice everything for beauty, you ultimately destroy what you have. The film is not unlike a gorgeous tropical fish plucked out of the water and tossed onto land. Certainly one cannot say that it isn’t beautiful as it flounders about, gasping for air.