Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content and some violence
Running Time: 145 min.

Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Koji Yakusho, Kaori Momoi, Youki Kudoh, Kenneth Tsang, Suzuka Ohgo, Mako
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenplay: Robin Swicord, Doug Wright (based on the novel by Arthur Golden)
Review published January 1, 2006

Sumptuously presented, as befitting a best-selling period novel of this nature, and as long as you aren't expecting to be awed by it, given the fuss this adaptation has generated for years, Memoirs of a Geisha turns out to be a good film dropped into a critical and commercial climate (Oscar-dominated December) where everyone is expecting greatness.  To be fair, it's not a masterpiece, but it is exceptionally well-made, although nitpickers will have a field day tearing it apart because of the casting decisions, changes from the novel, or whatever else they have a personal agenda to. 

I won't be of that crowd.  I'm only concerned with one thing and one thing only -- is it a worthy film?  Taking it purely on its own terms, which I am basically forced to do, having never read the original book by Arthur Golden, Memoirs proves to be a thoughtful, lavishly-crafted drama that, like the geishas themselves, remains distant but alluring, offering enough to keep you interested, but not enough to get you to fall truly in love.

The film starts off in the late 1920s, where a young girl named Chiyo (Zhang, House of Flying Daggers) is sold by her family to a geisha house.  Life isn't easy for the girl, as she is surrounded by no one that cares for her, and jealous rivals to despise her, as she trusts others that stab her in the back, getting her into trouble on a constant basis.  She does have one person show kindness, a noble gentleman known as the Chairman (Watanabe, Batman Begins), and she soon develops a love for him, despite not having a relationship at all.  It is foolish to think she ever could, as the way of the geisha is not to fall in love, providing services and entertainment to the men of the district, and nothing more.  As she grows, she is taken under the wing of another kind-hearted geisha named Mameha (Yeoh, Silver Hawk), who sees fit to make her the best geisha she can be, if only to keep the conniving Hatsumomo (Li, Dragon Chronicles) from becoming heir to the house.  Chiyo changes her name to Sayuri, and becomes the most mysterious and seductive geisha in the region.  While fame and money come her way, she still yearns for the Chairman and the love she feels she'll never be able to discover, resigned to live a life performing her art to the highest bidder.

While the story smacks more of the kind of film studios churn out rather than a fresh and honest look at the life of a geisha, nevertheless, director Rob Marshall (Chicago) effectively brings the tale to life, concentrating more on the factors that made it an appealing book -- the exotic locales, customs, and descriptions of the period.  Those looking to find something within the framework of the movie to suggest this would be a rich and complex character study are probably misguided.  While it lacks a certain power and feeling, the narrative as told remains compelling, and along with some superb acting, gorgeous camera work, and beautiful costumes, it transcends its superficial nature to become an admirable, and occasionally compelling, tale of misery and longing.

Memoirs does take some time to truly get going, coming to life more in the middle of the film where Michelle Yeoh begins to take center stage.  As with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Yeoh and Zhang work very well together as teacher and pupil, not only on screen, but also in the lessons Yeoh must surely impart in being a classy and multitalented actress and artist. 

While other critics berate the film for its lack of feeling and emotion, I must disagree, as I actually see this as a source of the film's strengths.  The life of the geisha, as depicted in the film, is one where personal emotions are muted, solely concentrating on the artistry and refined qualities to dazzle for the moment, retreating when emotions begin to flow too strongly.  The ebb and flow of the film perfectly captures the poetic ironies of the piece, sad without asking us to shed a tear, and tantalizing us without asking for anything more than what is required.  Narrated in the first-person by Sayuri herself, this is her tale, and her life, presented in her fashion, in perfect harmony with the elegant yet distant person she grew to become.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo