Memoirs of a Geisha

Pretty, oh so pretty vacant.

Released in 2005, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 26 Jan 2006 by Scott Morris
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The memoirs in question are of Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), sold into the service of a Geisha house run by Mother while still a slip of a girl. Unpleasant, but a better fate than her sister's stint as a prostitute. Seeing some potential for the Sayuri to be something more than a servant, Mother bundles her off to Geisha school. While it's not all cupcakes and Jesus juice, after a few years Sayuri finds herself in the middle of a power struggle between eminent Geishas (Geishai?) Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and Hatsumomo (Li Gong) vying for control by proxy of Mother's Geisha house through either Sayuri or Hatsumomo's favourite Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh). Meanwhile, nurturing a long-standing, childhood crush on a company chairman (Ken Watanabe), Sayuri's dreams of landing him are stymied somewhat by his being Mameha's patron. In the correct hands, Memoirs of a Geishawould make an excellent episode of Friends.

It is, if little else, a fascinating look at their world, if by 'world' you mean 'immediate surroundings' rather than 'their actual lives'. Until the minor inconvenience of World War II shows up to remind us what timeframe we're in this could as easily have been set in the 1730's. They seem to be trapped in some idyllic window to simpler times when Samurai were busy lopping arms off foreign devils or fighting pirates or whatever it was Samurai did back then. While there's much to be said for detached commentary, sometimes a film would be better if it got off the damn fence for a second.

Sayuri seems resigned to the life of a Geisha, happy to let the flow take her to wherever it's heading and seemingly unfazed by the whole 'slavery', and indeed 'sex slavery' aspects of it. These are blandly glossed over with a very Zen-like nonchalance, which seems to belittle the film and the lives on display. I'm not asking for any soapbox prolocutions or anything, but some stance on the concept of auctioning off your virginity wouldn't have gone amiss.

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Frequently, Memoirs of a Geisha is so beautiful it pains the eyes to behold it. The sets are painstakingly detailed, the costumes lavish, the score lush to the point of indecency. Even when it's being downtrodden and dirty, it's pretty. Is this vital? Is this important? Probably. Wiser heads than I have said that in such ugly times, beauty is the only true protest. In that respect at least, Memoirs of a Geisha is one of the decade's finest protest films.

The biggest bruhaha, if not here certainly over Asia direction, is the casting. Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang playing Japanese people? But they're Chinese! Bluster, bluster, rhubarb, rhubarb. From this perspective it's difficult to see where the beef is. How many Americans have played British characters and vice versa? How many different nationalities has Sean Connery tried to tell us the Sean Connery Accent™ represents? "Yesh, of coursh I'm Mongolian". This may be stumbling over cultural barriers I do not know and ought not to speak of, so let us curtail that avenue with the simple, obvious, Occam's Razor declaration that they were cast because of their undoubted ability and box office draw, which for the purposes of this paragraph we shall treat as being one and the same.

The biggest bruhaha, if not over Asia direction but certainly here, is the choice to film this in English. Wha? Why is everyone attempting Serious Drama in a languages that in most cases isn't their first, and certainly isn't what they done ought to be speaking guv'nor? Again Occam jumps in shouting that it's so it'll sell to the same foreign devils those Samurai were lopping arms off earlier, dummy. Good for you, Occam! Care to tell us how to overcome the fact that due to this you are rather uniquely and continually aware that you are not watching a portrayal of Japanese life, you are watching Chinese people portraying a Japanese way of life dolled up to sell to Westerners spoken in English? Care to explain how to ignore the grating sense of whoring out culture in easily digestible, pre-wrapped packs like supermarket sushi? Want to take a shot at defending the unique achievement of creating a culture clash whilst only showing one culture? Not so eager with the snappy rejoinder now, are you Occam?

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Does this matter? Yes. Yes, it does. It's not enough to start wheeling the Vitriol Cannon out of mothballs, but for something that by its very nature relies on pulling you into its little world of hurts and struggles it's a clear and constant reminder that You Are Watching A Film. We're getting into dangerously subjective territories here, but surely everyone has experienced times when the part of the brain that tells you You Are Watching A Film In An Uncomfortably Furnished Cinema gets shouted down, clubbed on the back of the head with a shillelagh and stuffed into a secured wardrobe for the duration. Not here. Here it's jumping up and down reminding you that this is just a film, and there's really not all that much going on, and you're running out of Irn-Bru, and the million other mundanities that get in the way of absorption into the screen.

I'd love to like this film more, but I can't justify it on any basis. Michelle Yeoh is a bright spot in any film, and much as I like Ziyi Zhang there's the odd scene where it's painfully obvious that this time last year she didn't speak much English. With that in mind it's impressive, but I refer you to the rantings of the previous two paragraphs to uncover the mysteries of why this is a a bad thing. She is, of course, quite as revoltingly beautiful as the rest of the film with the same sense of style that could bring men to their knees, but there's not much to care about behind the warpaint.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Rob Marshall
Cast list:
Michelle Yeoh (Mameha)
Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri)
Li Gong (Hatsumomo)
Ken Watanabe (Chairman)
Youki Kudoh (Pumpkin)