Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Memoirs of a Geisha wants so hard to be a poignant, serene observation of human nature in the Far East that it gets lost in its own narrative, frequently prefers style over substance, and offers a gorgeous film, with wonderfully misguided casting, and a lot of build-up with little payoff. Which is a shame, because this movie, based on a bestseller by Arthur Golden could have told us so much more about the culture of geisha, the rivalries between schools, the bidding wars for the girls’ affection and the war that ravaged Japan’s delicate balance of classes. There’s so much more on the pages of the book that never made the movie. And while the movie is a great tale, it just doesn’t do the book justice. Or, maybe I got spoiled by successful book adaptations in recent years.

This film has been in works for about a decade now. First if was a Spielberg production, which could not get it off the ground due to other filming schedules (the man’s been busy making sci-fi flicks with Tom Cruise, and heading up a movie studio – Dreamworks). Then the film rights were rumored to be given to Ang Lee, and finally, after the amazing success of Chicago, Rob Marshall was given director’s chair. He’s completely changed his visual style from the flashy, glitzy sparkles of Chicago, to vast, gorgeous landscape, narrow, winding streets of Osaka (is it Osaka? where does the movie take place? anyone remembers?), busy, crowded bars and of course, geisha dance training classes – also done in small, dusty quarters. I don’t know if it’s an accomplishment – Marshall heavily borrows from Chinese and Japanese filmmakers – or absorbs their styles to develop his own – but there’s very little “Hollywood” about the look and feel of the movie. I think it’s a good thing, even if it’s borrowed.

Then there was a casting fiasco – many roles are played by Chinese actors, and the film is about a Japanese culture, their language, and their rules. While I personally don’t mind – Ziyi Zhang, Li Gong and Michelle Yeoh are fantastic actors, and have done wonders with their characters – it would be nice to see more actors who actually came from Japan. But then again, it’s a studio film, they would cast familiar faces, I’m just glad Ken Watanabe and Kaori Momoi sneaked into this production.

The story is relatively simple, and this is where you can simply give a narration, or captivate the audience from the first phrase. Two sisters are sold to geisha houses. One (older) doesn’t quite fit the bill, and is quickly discarded to a brothel. The other (Sayuri, played by Ziyi Zhang) – with blue eyes (“you have too much water in your eyes, but water is strong, it makes its own path”) stays to assist an aging madam (“mother”, played by Kaori Momoi), and her best “product” – fiery, starving for power Hatsumomo (Li Gong). Eventually, Sayuri gets noticed by a madam from a rival geisha house (Michelle Yeoh), who invests into the girl, and trains her personally.

As Sayuri grows up, she learns about the ways of a big city (she comes from a tiny fishing village, naturally); the philosophy and economics of geisha lifestyle; the bidding wars between potential clients; and she learns of love and jealousy. Her observations are childish and yet very perceptive, sort of Alice in Far-East Wonderland. Many of them hit the mark, and bring her tragedy a little closer home – she is just a kid, and despite all references to art, studies and dance techniques, she is basically in an elaborate sex-trade. Perhaps with many perks and exceptions, but a sex trade nevertheless. This message never reaches home – the movie is too busy showing beautiful sunsets and phenomenal dance routines, angry cat-fights between the girls, and meaningful, silent glances from the male characters.

It’s all interesting, engaging, especially if you never visited Japan, never read or seen anything about geisha, but that underlying message is never revealed. Maybe that’s the whole point – self-deception is a great coping mechanism in all cultures and classes. I just wanted the point to be clearer, the morals a little more pronounced. But in a very typical (or stereotypical) eastern fashion, there’s a lot of innuendo, and a lot of symbolism, and never – a statement. As a result, the movie sounds a little weak, even though it looks great, and the book is faithfully adapted.

I just know there’s more to that story. There was more in the Memoirs of a Geisha.

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