No matter how much one may beatify things, sometimes a rose is merely a rose. Similarly “Memoirs of a Geisha”, no matter that its laced in awards calibre production values and lush visuals, never lets you forget that at its heart its a somewhat tired and simple melodrama about a young girl becoming a woman in WW2-era Japan. Its a look at Japanese culture through very western eyes, a film that lovingly dives into its setting and churns up details of life in a very different society. Yet the story is as thin as the paper that lines the walls of its abodes, the reality of life never feels less than an artist’s flight of fancy, and the one-note characters seem more akin to Aaron Spelling than Yasujiro Ozu.
How much of that problem relates to the source material – Arthur Golden’s 1997 bestselling novel – I can’t tell having not read the book. The hiring of Director Rob Marshall, who struck gold with his superb film adaptation of “Chicago”, has ensured a stunning looking movie in which even the most mundane of things (eg. our heroine washing a blood-soaked scarf in a river) is turned into a shot as rich as an oil painting. Production design is excellent as the high density cities, blossoming countryside and richly dressed yet spartan interiors of the era are displaid in lovingly lustrous detail. Added to this, John Williams provides a solid if somewhat obvious at times score.
Yet no matter how good looking your film is, if the script isn’t adapted well and the tone not properly set, it can mean the difference between a decent movie and a masterpiece. Marshall’s “Chicago” and more recent art house cinematic fare like “Brokeback Mountain” took what could’ve been called somewhat soapy and melodramatic period piece stories and made them seem fresh, raw and most importantly allowed them to emotionally resonate on screen. With “Geisha” however there’s not only the nagging feeling of familiarity throughout, but its cold demeanour never allows for an emotional investment in our tortured but increasingly self-aware leading lady.
The film very plainly spells out its three-act structure. The first follows the young girl Chiyo’s forced removal from her parents and youth serving as a slave at a geisha house under two fussy mother hens, and the bitter and bitchy Hatsumomo (Gong Li doing her best Joan Collins impression). The second and most interesting (albeit derivative at times) act shows the grown-up girl’s training in the ways of the geisha by a wizened mentor. That Liam Neeson-esque role is plaid by a dazzling looking Michelle Yeoh, who only gets more beautiful as she gets older.
Finally comes the rebirth and final self-determination of our girl after the war when American G.I.s, like locusts, have descended upon the land and devoured everything in sight – leaving only a shell of the grandeur that once was. With any film that so plainly lays out its underpinnings, its only natural that certain sections work better than others and in this case its very true.
The early scenes of the young girl growing up are dark, sometimes brutal, and sadly feel quite contrived. Right from the start the house master takes a disliking to Chiyo for no real reason short of her eye colour, a subplot about a missing sister begins and ends with little relevance to the rest of the story, and most of the time we’re stuck with her doting on Gong Li who acts like most of the girls do in your average cinematic portrayal of a Beverly Hills high school – ie. pretentious sluts.
When Michelle Yeoh appears onscreen and takes an immediate liking to her (again for no apparent reason, although this time its limply explained towards film’s end), the film shifts into one of those ‘sports training montage’ style movies as we’re shown the ways of geisha complete with all its makeup, behaviors and agony.
These are among the film’s more enjoyable scenes, going into detail about little known rituals and delicate character interactions, all whilst effectively building towards something. However that something turns out to involve capitalistic deflowering (to use an un-PC word, prostitution), something which seems at odds with a speech of Yeoh’s about how geishas are not simple courtesans which is why they demand a certain level of respect amongst even the elite.
From that point on the last hour of the film becomes an annoyingly protracted roundabout love story of how our young lady wants to get hitched with a man who displaid an act of kindness in her youth (the always regal Ken Watanabe). Like any ubiquitous ‘grand romance’ it keeps getting sidelined by various familiar looking obstacles ranging from an overly amorous suitor, a sleazy and dangerous Baron, all too libidinous American soldiers, bitchy rivals in need of payback, and of course the inevitable separation of two different people in a class-important society during a time of war. Much of it is flat unnecessary filler, not helped by the few ‘romantic scenes’ being as frosty as one of the cherry snow cones that started the whole thing.
Much controversy has been raised by the hiring of mostly Chinese actors to play Japanese roles when in actuality that’s one of the film’s lesser problems. The performances themselves are let downs from the great work many of these actors have done in the past, including their various Western pictures. Shooting the film in English, a language some of these thesps aren’t highly versed in, proves a mixed bag with only Yeoh (and to a lesser extent Watanabe) ever fully mastering it, whilst others like Ziyi and Li start off somewhat stilted although audibly improve across various scenes.
That also hampers their physical acting, Marshall never really signifies to them how to effectively portray their emotional states which leaves many of the roles sticking to the one-note they already play. Ziyi always seems like a frightened duck, only coming out of her shell during some enjoyable (albeit out of place) wordplay banter with a rival or dancing away on stage. Watanabe is always chivalrous, Li is always a bitch, Yeoh is never anything but an angel. None of these characters have any shades of gray, dialogue certainly doesn’t sound like what would be spoken in that period (I’m talking the words spoken, not the language issues here), and whilst many of the small details about Japan and geishas are mentioned, others seem skipped over or never truly explained.
Geisha’s are about subtlety, grace and mystery. “Memoirs” however couldn’t be more upfront if it tried. Its a lavish Hollywood period piece with meticulously constructed settings and a desperate desire to honor its roots and pedigree. Yet its also a film tailor made for young female westerners, focussed more on hitting emotionally manipulative beats than showing restraint, accuracy or depth.
More time has been spent on hitting the key events in the novel than at establishing true character depth and realism. When the film goes behind closed doors into the Geisha world it is fascinating, its just a shame more care wasn’t taken in the setting up of the rest of the story to be as compelling.