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Memoirs of a Geisha

Genre: Drama/Romance
Rated: PG-13
Directed by
: Rob Marshall
Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Ted Levine
Released by:
DreamWorks, Columbia Pictures

In Short: This adaptation of the novel Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautiful, but emotionally empty, movie experience.

Pretty Pictures Are Not Enough
Going Into a "Geisha" Coma

By Jenny Peters

Omens for the screen adaptation of Arthur Golden’s lyrical bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha were good, with fast-moving previews making it look dazzling and pre-release buzz touting it for multiple Oscar chances. Obviously, they were counting on the pedigree of director Rob Marshall, whose last film "Chicago" won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

So anticipation was high, which makes the sorry result so sad. Yes, it is a gorgeous film to look at, with sweeping vistas of the Japanese landscape and sets that evoke the Kyoto Gion district circa the 1930s and 1940s. The costumes worn by the exotically beautiful women are gorgeous as well, but the problem is that looks is all this dreadfully dull film has going for it.

The characters are completely uninteresting, with stereotypes abounding. There's the poor girl sold into geisha slavery who blossoms into a rose; the wicked slave owner, who actually sits and counts her money while snapping a whip; the jealous fading beauty intent on sabotaging the newcomer; and the protective mentor. They are all characters we have seen in other movies, simply set in a different atmosphere here. And the story is all too familiar, except for the creepy twist of the central romance. When Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) meets her lifelong love, she is ten years old; he ("The Chairman") is about forty. Then, when she grows up into the fabulous geisha of the title, this same man pushes her into the arms of his even older business partner rather than expressing his love for her.

Even overlooking the fact that the Chairman seems like a lecherous pedophile/pimp rather than a man deserving Sayuri's undying love, the worst part is that there is no spark at all to the proceedings. This romance is so enervated and emotionally flat that by the time the protagonists finally get together, we could care less and are practically in a coma of boredom.

While author Golden tried to drive home the fact that geishas, contrary to popular belief, weren’t prostitutes but highly skilled artisans (versed in the arts of dance, music, poetry, tea ceremony etc.), geisha culture still boils down to a group of women (many forced to become geishas in the first place) with the single goal of completely pleasing any man who comes along with some ready cash. And despite the film's insistence that selling sex is not a key element of geisha culture, a central point revolves around the auction of Sayuri's virginity to the highest male bidder. That dichotomy is hard to overlook, despite the pretty costumes and tea pouring.

Another jarring element of the film is the dialogue. It would have been more believable to use subtitles than to have the Asian cast (which is oddly enough made up of mostly Chinese, not Japanese, actresses) obviously struggle with the English dialogue. That intrusive reality consistently takes the viewer out of the very Japanese setting, adding to feelings of disappointment on just about every level for this much-touted film.

(Updated: 09/27/06)

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