Memoirs of a Geisha spent a lot of time in development hell before finally getting the green light. At one time, Steven Spielberg was set to direct (he remains on board as a producer). Several other names came and went, until the producers settled on Rob Marshall (Chicago). But, because Marshall was under contract to Miramax, some horse trading had to be done before he was free to make the movie. The film is an adaptation of the immensely popular Arthur Golden novel, and is about as faithful as a two-plus hour movie could be.
There’s no doubting that Memoirs of a Geisha is a lush motion picture, and it has much to recommend it, but this will not go down as one of the great screen romances of the 2000s. The love story, although competently told, never soars and, while satisfying, it doesn’t cause the heart either to break or take flight. One could argue that the movie is more about the lead character than her relationship with a man but, by the way the story is told, it’s clear than Marshall and his screenwriters want the romance to be a key element.
The film opens with Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo as a child, Ziyi Zhang as an adult) being taken from the small fishing village of Yoroido and sold to the proprietress of a Kyoto geisha house. At first, Chiyo’s lone goal is to find her sister, Satsu, from whom she has been separated but, after a brief reunion, they are parted forever. Chiyo’s plans to become a geisha – a “moving work of art” who sells her skills, not her body – are dashed when she runs afoul of Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the house’s most consistent earner. For her infractions, she is denied the chance to attend the geisha school and must perform menial chores. But others see something in her. The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) recognizes her as a girl of amazing character and offers her a simple kindness. Chiyo vows to become a geisha and make him her patron. A celebrated geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), takes Chiyo under her wing. When Chiyo is ready to make her debut, she is given a “geisha name” – Sayuri – and introduced into society, where she must compete with Hatsumomo for the best clients.
The need for the film to be commercially viable is a drawback. Admittedly, the purist approach – all Japanese actors speaking in subtitled dialogue – while arguably the best way to present Memoirs of a Geisha, would have resulted in a box-office disaster. So, to broaden the film’s appeal, “name” Asian actors were chosen and the movie was made in English. Three of the major actresses – Ziyi Zhang (Chinese), Gong Li (Chinese), and Michelle Yeoh (Malaysian) – are not Japanese. Their ethnicity isn’t really an issue, since most Westerners won’t know the difference. However, the decision for all the dialogue to be in English is more problematic. Zhang and Gong are not adept at this language, and their delivery and cadence is frequently off. Both are excellent actresses, but they don’t shine here, except in instances when scenes rely on the non-verbal aspects of their performances. Michelle Yeoh is more comfortable with English, and this makes her a standout.
To Marshall’s credit, he assembled as many Japanese actors as possible. Youki Kudoh (Snow Falling on Cedars) is solid as Pumpkin, Sayuri’s sometimes-friend, sometimes-rival. Kaori Momoi plays the crotchety landlady of the geisha house. Küji Yakusho gives a passionate performance as the scarred Nobu. And Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) exudes nobility as the Chairman. The only non-Asian to have a speaking role of any significance is Paul Adelstein, and his part requires less than 15 minutes of screen time. Like The Joy Luck Club, this is a rarity – a motion picture made in the United States with an almost all-Asian cast.
For those who follow Asian cinema, there’s a note of irony surrounding Gong Li’s appearance in this film. The actress first gained the international spotlight for her work in the superb Raise the Red Lantern, in which she played an innocent preyed upon by older, more cunning women. In Memoirs of a Geisha, the tables are turned. In this instance, it’s Gong who’s the seasoned, nastier woman. The actress playing her victim, Ziyi Zhang, is the woman who took up with Gong’s ex-lover, Zhang Yimou, after Zhang and Gong underwent a traumatic and public breakup in 1995.
It’s not surprising how sumptuous the movie looks, or how rich it is in atmosphere. During the early scenes, as Sayuri and her sister are taken from their homes and separated, the film’s tone and mood are perfect. It’s Dickens filtered through Japan. Later scenes are equally well developed. Marshall’s primary aim seems to have been to make Memoirs of a Geisha look right. I”m not an expert on World War II era Japan, but the period detail appears to be on the mark. John Williams” score, which has a suitably Japanese flavor, complements the visual elements.
Emotionally, although Memoirs of a Geisha is not inert, it lacks the ability to wrench the viewer. There are times when it feels muted. The story offers insight into what geishas were in the “old” Japan (“not courtesans, not wives”) and the “new” one (“anyone can buy a kimono and call herself a geisha”) and, by extension, the kind of seismic shift undergone by Japanese culture after the war. The central love story is more complex in the book, but Marshall distills it to its essence so the resolution is defined for cinema-goers. Memoirs of a Geisha is worthwhile on many levels, although it lacks the depth of feeling that would have elevated it from a good movie to a romance for the ages.