Give It Up for the Geisha

The exquisitely phony charms of the Asian bourgeoisie—Hollywood style

By Scott Foundas

Memoirs of a Geisha is a movie to restore Hollywood's faith in itself—an enormous billboard that says, "Fret not, the dream factory is alive and well." It's not a great movie, or even a particularly good one, but it's spectacular. No expense has been spared. The technical crew reads like a roll call of Oscar-night regulars. The music is by John Williams, with violin solos by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma on cello. And after a while, the movie wears you down—you surrender to its elegant upholstery right along with its convictions that all Asian people look alike and that pre-World War II Kyoto was a dead ringer for the Japanese Pavilion at Epcot Center. I'm tempted to call Memoirs of a Geisha a guilty pleasure, but, really, it's closer to a guilty acquiescence.

Adapted by Robin Swicord from the best-selling novel by the improbable Arthur Golden (a Chattanooga-born, Harvard-educated historian), Memoirs begins in 1929 and follows the Dickensian fortunes of 9-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), a poor country girl whose destitute father sells her off to an okiya (or geisha house), separating her from her beloved older sister (who is sold to a rival house). Scraggly and scrawny and unabashedly homesick, Chiyo hardly seems the stuff that geisha are made of, and so finds herself consigned to veritable slavery in the service of the okiya's stern owner (known only as Mother) and its reigning star, the vain and calculating Hatsumomo (Gong Li). That is, until young Chiyo catches the attention of an influential Osaka factory owner called the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and, in short order, receives a visit from the regal Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). A legend among geisha (and Hatsumomo's archnemesis), Mameha makes Mother a monetary offer she can't refuse, which allows her to take the seemingly hopeless Chiyo under her wing.

To paraphrase Neil Diamond, except for the names and a few other changes, Geisha is the same story as Cinderella—even if Cinderella preferred glass slippers to wooden sandals and didn't, at least as I recall, have her virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder. Under Mameha's watchful eye, Chiyo (renamed Sayuri and now played by Ziyi Zhang) is transformed from naif to knockout, and no sooner has she made her professional debut than she becomes the most sought-after geisha in town, earning the ire of Hatsumomo and further attention from The General. He loves Sayuri from afar, but keeps his affection well-hidden out of deference to his friend and business partner, the disfigured Nobu (Koji Yakusho), who also pines for Sayuri and to whom the Chairman literally owes his life.

That setup becomes fodder for one of those unduly protracted movie love stories in which it takes the guy and girl who are clearly perfect for each other two-plus hours to realize that and to gradually find their way back to one another. (Call it Cold Mount Fuji.) And for most of Memoirs of a Geisha, I kept wondering whether this paperback-romance glop was ever going to deepen into something more meaningful. It doesn't, and yet I nevertheless found myself falling for the movie's intoxicating charms—chief among them Zhang, whose porcelain skin and watery, blue-gray eyes are repeatedly filmed in screen-filling close-up, and who possesses the pantomimic expressiveness of the great silent-film stars. To watch emotions flash across her face is to be reminded of a calm sea momentarily disturbed by the ripples of a skipped stone. It's the kind of performance that can make the material seem richer than it actually is. And it's all the more remarkable in that Zhang, like much of the primary Geisha cast, is far from a fluent English speaker.

The appeal of the film lies mainly in the actors—not just Zhang, but Gong, vamping to the hilt in the de facto wicked-stepsister role, her every glance like a dagger encased in silk; and Yeoh, resplendent and proud, yet not quite so above it all that she doesn't feel a tinge of jealousy at her star pupil's meteoric ascendancy. If rumors are to be trusted, these three divas were hardly the best of friends during the making of the film, and any such competitiveness can only have enhanced the story's backbiting tone. When Hatsumomo tells Sayuri that she will destroy her, there's a special relish to her words that transcends any language barrier, and it's a promise she nearly makes good on during a knock-down, drag-out cat fight that ranks alongside the best of Joan Collins and Linda Evans. But the men in the film are no slouches, particularly Watanabe (trading The Last Samurai's Yul Brynner routine for Clark Gable's Brylcreem élan), and Yakusho, who invests what might have been a stock wounded-war-vet role with unexpectedly tender and tragic dimensions.

Director Rob Marshall has picked up a great deal of skill since his feature directorial debut, Chicago, an abomination that somehow manages to maintain the reputation of being a good movie. Marshall's still a director who makes Ron Howard seem like a fount of forceful personality. I'm not convinced that he has any real affinity for the language of film, but at least he's learned where to put the camera and how to cut a scene together. No doubt it helped that Steven Spielberg, who produced Geisha, long planned to direct the film himself and spent considerable time prepping the production. It's not hard to see what appealed to Spielberg about the material—it has the same reductive-masquerading-as-empowering view of "ethnic people" that has plagued a number of his own films, and at times I wondered if the whole thing might end with Sayuri reunited with her sister and playing patty-cake in the streets of Kyoto while atomic bombs rain down on the rest of Japan.

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