Memoirs of a Geisha
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Starring: Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Koji Yakusho
Reviewed by: Andrew C.C. Huang, Contributing Writer
Opens: Today, January 13, Friday
For those who are expecting a second "The Last Emperor" in which all the major Asian stars converge in a major English-language movie, they would be sadly disappointed. Director Rob Marshal of the celebrated "Chicago" fame is an entertainment popsicle - sweet, pretty and low in substance.
Produced by the cinematic master Steven Spielberg, directed by Rob Marshal and adapted from the mindless best-selling pop fiction by American writer Arthur Golden, "Memoirs of a Geisha" might become that rare movie where its political context overwhelms any of the movie's entertainment achievement.
As a movie about the dramatic life of a Japanese geisha or courtesan produced, directed and written by three white American male, recreating the authenticity and the spirit of the lost geisha world doesn't seem to be the point of this movie. The real points are "exoticness," "Oriental beauty" and "the intriguing mysteriousness of a bygone world of geisha" that is not probably not that far away from "The World of Susie Wong."
For Marshall, it's his whimsical exotic journey into the mysterious Orient and especially into such a sensational and controversial subject matter of geisha. Even with the prestige of Spielberg and Marshall, the movie was basically marketed as a Christmas holiday fare movie in the U.S.
For Asian audiences however, expectations for "Memoirs of a Geisha" almost broke through the roof. Since it's the next high-profile, prestigious English-language movie about Asia since Italian master Bernardo Bertolucci's ground-breaking "The Last Emperor" almost two decades ago, Asian audiences expect "Memoirs of a Geisha" to be the next landmark movie in which the new generation of Asian superstars get to prove their acting mettle and star wattage.
Unfortunately, Marshall has neither the passion nor the ambition to understand and interpret Asian cultures for the Western audiences. What he is banking on are the drawing power of the movie's major Asian stars, the elaborate costumes and the mystery of an exotic and inexplicable profession called geisha from that nation named Japan.
The story starts in 1929 when an impoverished child called Chiyo from a fishing village is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto. Because of her attempt to zescape, Chiyo is relegated to the role of a servant instead of a geisha in training.
Chiyo's (Zhang Ziyi) stunning beauty triggers the vindictive jealousy of the house's reigning geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Luckily, when Chiyo reaches 15, Hatsumono's rival Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) of another geisha house takes Chiyo under her wings. Under the tutelage of Mameha, Chiyo assiduously studies the arts and social skills in order to become a supreme geisha. Chiyo makes her debut in the geisha world and quickly ascends to become the most popular geisha with her unrivalled beauty and talents. Unfortunately, Chiyo's secret love for the gentlemanly Chairman (Ken Watanabe) is forbidden because the Chairman's life-and-death buddy Nobu (Koji Yakusho) is the wealthy patron who promotes Chiyo to the top of the geisha world.
As World War II looms over Japan, all the geishas and their patrons scatter and the rarefied world of geisha starts to crumble. With the mass of young and red-blooded American soldiers occupying Japan, the term "geisha" has overnight become the title of any sleazy Japanese girl who is willing to entertain an American solider for a night for some American dollars.
One of the biggest hoopla surrounding the movie is the casting of three international Chinese female superstars in the same movie. While Zhang Ziyi received a Golden Globe nomination for best actress, her innocent Chiyo girl character pales against her feisty performances in "Crouching Tiger," "Daggers" and "2046." Playing an innocent ingenue is simply not the forte of Zhang, who is known for her florid beauty and steely persona both on screen and off. Michelle Yeoh, with her fluent English and confidence, turns in the best performance since "Crouching Tiger" as the elegant yet calculating Mameha that is worthy of an award nomination. Gong Li, the legendary star and supreme thespian of China, manages to steal the limelight again with her small part of the ill-tempered and angst-ridden Hatsumono. With a few glances and prancing of her long hair, Gong Li manages to convey the deep passion and hatred of prima donna geisha who is not allowed to love.
The male leads are relegated to supporting roles facing these three Chinese super divas. Japanese superstar Ken Watanabe (Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai") delivers an understated yet heartfelt performance as the Chairman who has been loved by Chiyo since her youth. Japanese superstar Koji Yakusho as the wealthy patron Nobu also turns in a touching performance as a proud nobleman who falls in love with a geisha yet cannot claim her love.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" suffers from the same problem as "The Last Emperor." It's an English-language movie about Asia with Asian superstars performing in their stilted English. Besides Michelle Yeoh, who grew up in the West and speaks fluent English, the dialogues in "Memoirs of a Geisha" is a mishmash of different accents by actors from different Asian countries. With all their jumbled accents, the audience could easily miss a word or even a whole sentence. Captions in both Chinese and English is essential for this movie.
Much has been made about the movie's lush design and costumes. However, the art design of "Memoirs" is beautiful but falls short again compared to classics such as "Chicago" or "The Last Emperor." Zhang Ziyi's much touted solo dance on high platform is a highlight that's unfortunately cut too short.
While the movie defines the word "geisha" as "artist" who sells crafts instead of sex, it's common knowledge that females who work in the skin business inevitably have to sell their bodies. The message of "Memoirs" consequently becomes blurred. Is the audience supposed to believe that all prostitutes and courtesans could find real love if they try hard enough through the path of prostitution?
Alright, let's not take it too seriously. It's the Christmas in the U.S. and the Chinese New Year holidays in Asia after all. So "Memoirs of a Geisha" is not the landmark film we expected it to be. Call it cinematic "Spice Girls" embraced by Spielberg and Marshall or feminism-lite. During this holiday season, it shouldn't do much harm to suck on a sweet candy with a happy ending and enjoy two hours of entertainment.