Memoirs of a Geisha

(2005) ** Pg-13
137 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Rob Marshall. Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Koji Yakusho, Youki Kudoh.

Okay, so Memoirs of a Geisha is Hollywood's account of the lifestyle of a traditional Japanese artist-escort. The film is directed by a Caucasian man, adapted (by a Caucasian man and woman) from a scrupulously researched novel by a Caucasian man, but again, the film is a Hollywood account.

The leading ladies are Chinese and Malaysian (performing in sometimes halting English), a choice that reflects fear-based cinema economics and further removes the story from cultural authenticity (given the open wound of the Sino-Japanese war, some have wrongly branded hired hands Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li traitors).

Actors need not racially match their roles—the job is, after all, about pretending. Nevertheless, the limited number of Japanese actors (who could use some affirmative action on these shores) belies the filmmakers's stated intent to swathe themselves in Japanese culture. Forget it, Jake, it's Hollywood.

"It is not for geisha to want. It is not for geisha to feel."

In the film's opening scene, two young girls in a fishing village get a rude awakening before dawn. Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister find themselves sold into slavery. The stringent madam of a geisha house (Kaori Momoi) accepts Chiyo and rejects her sister, causing a traumatic separation. Chiyo, renamed Sayuri, unaccountably sparks the ire of the madam's top-grossing geisha Hatsumomo (Gong, deliciously ferocious)—maybe it's Sayuri's extra-exotic sea-blue eyes that put the fear of God in Hatsumomo. At any rate, she makes sure that Sayuri doesn't get her shot to become a geisha.

"What do you think—a geisha is free to love? Never."

The Chairman, a well-appointed older man played by Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, sees young Sayuri standing around town and delays an important date so that he can chat her up and buy her a snow cone. Why would an important man drop everything to single out a nine-year-old girl on the street? It's not what you think—it's just that he's so pure-hearted and sees something special in her that he's moved to a random act of kindness. Awww. Maybe one day, she'll grow up and win his heart; in fact, Sayuri dedicates her remaining life to just this purpose, by way of geisha-hood.

"My life had turned into a game, and only she knew the rules."

Enter Mameha, a cross-town rival geisha played, in a sly turn, by Michelle Yeoh. All too familiar with Hatsumomo's cruel ambition, Mameha decides to teach Sayuri (now played by the ever-winning Zhang) the tricks of the trade and make her a record-breaking geisha. How does one break records as a geisha, you ask? By auctioning off one's virginity.

"We don't become geisha to pursue our own destinies; we become geisha because we have no choice."

With the filmmakers consumed by the "backstage" drama, very little impression of a geisha's day-to-day existence emerges—all the better to keep Sayuri that obscure object of desire. Marshall drowns every scene with import when slices of geisha life would be more engrossing (we get most of the training details in montage, and the client scenes mostly relate to the hardly day-to-day virginity auction).

"A story like mine should never be told."

Arthur Golden based his acclaimed semi-biographical fiction on detailed interviews with a real geisha, who later sued him for unauthorized misuse and dramatic-license distortion of her life. Marshall takes the novel as a set of blueprints to build up visual setpieces: a dusky, seaside childhood kidnapping; bustling Kyoto streets; an anachronistic runway dance show (don't ask); a dramatic cliffside wallow that's inexplicable except as an excuse for a scenic helicopter shot.

"With your eye for beauty and your nose for talent, surely you can see she's a special girl."

The studio-storybook look of Memoirs of a Geisha practically screams, "If you want realism, try a Japanese film!" Oprah's Book Club is the target audience for Rob Marshall's misguided Oscar bait, a bloated melodrama more interested in poses than inner lives (according to some Japanese-culture-vultures, it gets the poses wrong, too). Despite strong efforts by the cast, this pretty gloss has about as much authenticity as The Last Samurai, which is to say: not much.

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