Retro Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

Based on the renowned bestseller, Memoirs of a Geisha chronicles the career of Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), a young woman who as a child is sold into the geisha profession in 1929.

Her strength rises as she ascends to become the most beautiful geisha in all Japan.

Along the way, Sayuri falls in love with a wealthy businessman called The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), adopts a mentor (Michelle Yeoh) and faces off against her rival (Gong Li).

“Memoirs of a Geisha” opening sequences made it hard to get into the film at first. The film was very clunky and off-kilter. When Ziyi Zhang takes over in the more adult role of the film’s central character, a majesty erupts.

She is beautiful, captivating, strong and above all else relatable. Zhang glides through the role like a prominent geisha should. Then when she is complimented by Yeoh, the film really seems to find its footing, sort of.

The soul of the film should have been about these two women but because it always dabbles in so many other subplots it loses it way quite quickly.

I have been told that the novel is written through the eyes of Sayuri and the film barely acknowledges that in the narration and that the story is completely hers.

In the book, the yearning for the Chairman to love her must be a central theme but here in the film it is confusing. We never get the idea he loves her and it comes off as more of a school girl crush than something substantial. The love story between Sayuri and the Chairman is wasted and the whole subplot seems very convoluted.

It wasn’t only the love story that failed but the structure of most of the other subplots. Director Rob Marshall’s inexperience with a film of this size could be to blame for the lack of concrete sub-plots and strong character development. I think for this film to improve it needed to be a “cable mini-series” or have a strong epic director at the helm.

There is a lot to like about this film but probably its greatest fault is that it isn’t a strong epic. A story like this needed a stronger vision and a stronger director.

(3 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer

One thought on “Retro Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

  1. This is the most unfairly maligned film of the year. Some critics took it upon themselves to be the defenders of Japanese culture (without fully researching their arguments) and, in the process, betrayed their own racism. “The film is inauthentic because the actresses do not wear matronly bouffants,” one said. Riiiiiight. Matronly bouffants are a Western stereotype! But in any case, some of them do and some don’t! THAT’S authenticity. I guess critics wouldn’t know that writing reviews without seeing the film or walking out long before it’s over (some, such as Jeff Wells, do).

    Anyway, it’s a fantastic film and more than deserving of multiple Academy award nominations – which it may not get thanks to the fact that so many people decided they wanted to use the film as the sacrificial lamb for a half-baked debate about international politics, rather consider that pan-Asian casting for major roles is NOTHING new (it’s true of House of Flying Daggers, The Joy Luck Club and even Crouching Tiger) and that this film’s production might represent international cooperation at its best.

    Look out for Gong Li and Youki Kudoh in RICHLY developed supporting roles. The supporting males, while obviously not as well developed since they spend less time in the geisha quarters, still give incredible performances. Ken Watanabe was excellent, but I particularly enjoyed the performance of the actor playing Nobu. Oprah is right about the sets and costumes; they (amongst other things) make you want to savor every moment of the film. Some people have argued that the brilliant colors make it seem like some sort of Orientalist fantasy. Truth is that this would only be the case if we saw a departure from a more sedate West to a flamboyant East; instead, the film opens in a rather sedate part of Japan and then takes us to the more colorful geisha district (which introduces this fascinating paradox of great suffering in a milieu of tremendous beauty). We know from Chicago that it’s simply Rob Marshall’s aesthetic to make everything the height of beauty, even if it’s a slum. God forbid ENTERTAINMENT CIRCLES should be presented as visually spectacular! The film is by turns funny, moving and, yes, thrilling. Gasps in the audience for the film’s third act gave way to sniffles. Ziyi Zhang really managed any language difficulties well; her face has this ripple effect when she’s emoting. It’s stunning to behold. If I were voting for the Oscars, I’d definitely give her a nomination at the very least. And homegirl can dance, too! Her performance and the film itself are not boring at all; audience members laughed when she was trying to be funny and sighed when she was suffering. IMO, too much happens in the film for it to get boring; there’s a strong balance between the rivalries, the details about geisha entertainment and the romance. In the final scene, it all comes full circle. I won’t tell you how. See for yourself.

    My #1 film of the year. Brokeback Mountain, Chronicles of Narnia, Howl’s Moving Castle, King Kong and Grizzly Man aren’t far behind.

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