We rushed to see Memoirs of a Geisha right after I finished all my exams on Dec. 19, not because we were dying to see it, but rather we were desparately in need for our favourite form of entertainment. And a movie featuring several the most well-known Chinese actresses looked liked an excellent choice. I even went to the theatre directly from school, carrying all my stuff and an empty stomach. The result — a review on my Space that I kept putting off until more than a week later, because I was not too sure how to describe this movie.
Memoirs of a Geishais a yet another movie adapted from a book, the best-selling book with the same title, written by Arthur Golden (Gosh, Hollywood is really running out of ideas). It’s about a little girl named Chiyo (played by the very cute and pretty Suzuka Ohgo), who was sold to a Geisha house from her poor family in a fishing village. In the Geisha house, little Chiyo learned the art and lifestyle of Geisha, an artist who dances, sings, plays instruments, etc. for pleasures of her patrons. At first, all she wanted was to be reunited with her sister. When that dream was crushed, and a stranger known as "Chairman" comforted her, she turned to the dream of learning the art of Geisha, because she wanted to be one of the women surrounding the Chairman (played Ken Watanabe) so that she could see him again.
One day, another Geisha named Mameha (played by Michelle Yeoh) showed up to train Chiyo as her prodigy. But of course things couldn’t be this easy for little Chiyo. The top Geisha in her house and also a rival of Mameha, Hatsumomo (played by Gong Li), took another girl, Chiyo’s friend called Pumpkin, under her wing to compete with Chiyo. Then we saw a lesson of Geisha training, the cunning competition between Hatsumomo and Mameha, and Chiyo’s transformation into a true Geisha, now named Sayuri (played by Zhang Ziyi). She was becoming the most popular Geisha in town, sought after by many powerful man. But this did not matter to her. All what she desired was just to be with the Chairman. Then WWII started. That was not the time for artistic entertainment. Sayuri was forced to leave town for a safe place…
Okay, I have written two long paragraphs of plot summary, and if you started to feel weary and you wondered where this is going, you would understand why I didn’t know how to write about this movie. Memoirs of a Geisha seemed to have a storyline. But then, it didn’t, at least not one with a purpose. I never felt connected to Sayuri, and therefore I couldn’t be sympathetic for her. I didn’t understand why she would go through everything just for a man she met for some brief moments. Did she want to be a Geisha or not? If it’s just a strategy to be with a man she loved, then she was indeed in control of her life, while Mameha reminded us, "We don’t become Geishas to pursue our own destiny." So what’s really going on? Maybe that’s the mindset of a traditional Japanese woman, or how it’s written by the author/writer, but I just couldn’t understand it.
Granted, Zhang Ziyi did a great job portraying the protagonist. We could see essence of the little girl full of spirit in her at the beginning, and a woman worn by the circumstances near the end. She was especially good at dramatic moments, making me wonder if she could ever be a good choice for a comedy. But the spot light was stolen by Gong Li. She was wonderful as the villian, standing in the way of Chiyo’s happiness. At the same time, we felt sorry for her when the plot let us…and when the director allowed time for it. Michelle Yeoh was more reserved in the film, echoing her performance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She served her purpose. Ken Watanabe might be the most charming caller in the group, convincing as the object of Sayuri’s affection. But I liked another man in love with Sayuri, Nobu (played by Koji Yakusho), the Chairman’s business partner. His character was vastly different when his business was destroyed in the war. The change in his character was visible, and that’s saying something. The same thing can be said about Pumpkin (played by Youki Kudoh). I also liked Auntie at the Geisha house (played by Tsai Chin, whom I knew from Joy Luck Club and I loved her in that movie, too). She showed sympathy to Chiyo, and she was the nicest person in the Geisha house. I supposed because she could never be a Geisha, she wanted to see others making her dream come true. And she came across as a gracious old lady.
Therefore, all the actors and actresses did their best with a bland story from Hollywood. Well, we couldn’t really expect anything else from a book written by an American, or a film directed by an American. Just like The Last Samurai, this movie was hardly a true depiction of the Japanese culture.
Having said that, I couldn’t deny the fact that the movie was beautifully done, in the sense that it’s enjoyable to the eyes. The kimonos (what they were wearing) were beautiful. The dance and style of things were fun to watch. (Incidentally, a group of art students were sitting behind us. Seeing this movie could be their assignment or something.) And the soundtrack was excellent, as it suited the mood of every scene perfectly. Funny thing, it featured drum beats and cello by Yoyo Ma, another thing found in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, too (OK, I admit it. I love that movie). So I guess in the end, just like what the review in LA Weekly says, "It’s not a great movie…but it’s spectacular."
- To write this entry, I read a couple of reviews and what people were saying on discussion boards. The controversy surrounding this movie was that Chinese actresses were casted to play Japanese characters. Given the history between the two countries, there was a big dispute about this. However, my problem with the casting was, sadly, their English. There were Japanese accents along with Chinese ones. This inconsistency and the the leading actresses’ struggle with saying their lines clearly were distracting. I don’t doubt thier acting skills (I know some Zhang Ziyi-haters definitely do), but speaking their second language proves to be an obstacle to fully appreciating their performance, unfortunately.
- The director, Rob Marshall, has proven himself with Chicago. However, I agree with The Toronto Star‘s critic, Peter Howell, that he is better at comedies, comparing this movie and Chicago, one of my favourite. Originally, Steven Spielberg was going to direct this movie. He remained the producer of the film.
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