Memoirs of a Geisha

After watching the overly long Memoirs of a Geisha, people must be wondering "what was all the fuss about?" Arthur Golden's novel spent a heckuva lot of time on the bestseller lists, and as the release date for this movie neared, crept back up on the paperback lists. But after watching is, there is a profound feeling of "so what?" similar to the feelings many people experienced after Cold Mountain. The largest problem is language. No offense to Ziyi Zhang (yes, she switched her name from Zhang Ziyi) and Gong Li (who is still Gong Li and not Li Gong), but their English could a lot of work (the fact that there Chinese should not matter at all). Granted, director Rob Marshall (Chicago) made all of the actors speak a bit archaically in order to make the film feel era-appropriate, but still, in order to stay true to the story, Memoirs of a Geisha should have been filmed in Japanese. It is a bit too surreal watching Japanese characters speak English, mixing in a few Japanese words here and there.

Memoirs of a Geisha is about Sayuri, a country girl sold by her parents, who rose to be one of the greatest geishas in Kyoto. Robin Swicord's (Practical Magic, Matilda) adaptation is pretty mundane; an adult Sayuri (Shizuko Hoshi, Charlotte Sometimes, M. Butterfly) narrates her life story chronologically. As a child, little Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo, Year One in the North) lands in a geisha house run by the imperious Mother (Kaori Momoi, Revival Blues, Welcome Back Mr. McDonald). She is a slave, constantly berated by Hatsumomo (Gong, Eros, 2046), the most popular geisha in the area. Hatsumomo feels that she is the reason Mother's house is successful. Mameha (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Silver Hawk), one of Hatsumomo's rivals, takes Chiyo under her wing and trains her to be a geisha. Chiyo becomes Sayuri (Zhang, 2046, House of Flying Daggers), now a rival to her friend Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Wind Carpet).

All these happen as if Marshall had a long checklist, and x'ed out the boxes as each plot point finished. There is no emotion to Memoirs. The settings (a small Japanese village was built outside of Los Angeles) look exquisite, and the geishas parade around in luxurious kimonos, but it's all for show. The cat fighting between Hatsumomo and Sayuri, and Hatsumomo and Mameha is forced and feels fake. The intrigue and politics inside Mother's house, with each woman crawling her way to the top is almost absent. Golden's novel was celebrated for his attention to detail and historical accuracy, and Marshall and Swicord throw most of that out the window.

Instead they focus on the Sayuri character, and the pull she feels between what tradition dictates her to be and the person she wants to be (hint - they are different). As a child, she met the Chairman (Ken Watanabe, Batman Begins, The Last Samurai) on a bridge and instantly fell in love. As a geisha, she meets him again, and determines that she will do everything she can to get him to sponsor her. Preventing her is the weight of her duty, the Chairman's friend Nobu (Koji Yakusho, University of Laughs, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge), who may be her only chance at finding a wealthy donor, and Hatsumomo, who still tries to undermine her. The love story is more inert than Sayuri's struggles to reach the top. It's just hard to care about what happens to Sayuri when Marshall cannot make the audience care about her.

Haro Rates It: Not That Good.
2 hours, 25 minutes, Rated PG-13 for mature subject matter, and some sexual content.

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