Thursday, January 26, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

I've been waiting impatiently for this film to come out. Still, it took me two months to get to the theatre to see it, and some of that delay may have been because of my fear that the transfer from book to film might be disappointing.

Memoirs of a Geisha would be a difficult job to transfer to film, to be sure. While some scenes obviously lend themselves to wonderful cinematography -- who wouldn't want to film a geisha in those gorgeous kimonos? -- Memoirs was always a mostly internal story, but an epic one, starting in pre-war Japan and extending to post-war Japan. And while novelist Arthur Golden could expound on the meaning of a simple term in geisha life -- and there are many in the novel -- there's no such trick in movies.

A young girl and her sister are taken away from their simple shoreline hut one night as they watch their mother die. It seems their father sold them into slavery when it became clear to him he could not care for them. The sisters are split up, and we find out immediately that the choice as to where the two girls end up is made because one of them is prettier than the other. A most unfair way to begin their lives, to be sure, as one -- Chiyo -- ends up as a servant in the house of a famous geisha, and her sister as a product in the red light district.

Unfortunately, the film skips quickly over important facts one needs to know, such as the fact that as soon as Chiyo comes into Mother's house (the splendid actress Kaori Momoi), she is facing a debt as long as her arm. Besides the price Mother paid for the young servant, every time Chiyo feeds herself, or takes lessons, she racks up more debt. As it turns out, the only way to erase the debt is to become a geisha. Because of Chiyo's beauty, she is finally allowed to reach towards this goal which will allow her more freedom in a rather rigid world.

While we do see a little about the geisha's training, that's not the point of this movie. Geisha's world has women at the center, with men seemingly in power in their sphere of influence. We see these women clash, struggle for power, in a most fascinating way.

And you see the transition between a structured Japan where everyone understands their place, and a post-war where chaos ensues. There is a series of shocking scenes when it's obvious Japan has lost the war when you see young American G.I.'s take over the streets, raping and pillaging, just as any invading warrior class is wont to do. And we watch the Japanese adapt to this change in their best effort to survive.

It was most unfortunate that some of the English spoken wasn't easily understood. Director Rob Marshall went with Japanese and Chinese actresses, and fine choices they were, but their words weren't always clear. Ziyi Zhang, as our Chiyo who becomes geisha Sayuri, was especially hampered by English. I was surprised that the two women who communicated the best, through words and action, were Gong Li, playing the irrepressible Hatsumomo, the most beautiful and feared geisha in the city, and Michelle Yeoh, playing the older geisha who takes Sayuri under her wing. Gong Li recited her lines, I understand, phonetically, but poured real power into her hatred of her younger rival, while Michelle Yeoh received her first acting training at the old Hong Kong martial arts films and, later in her career, in English-speaking films. Each of these actresses virtually lit up the screen every time they appeared, and catapulted young Ziyi Zhang into the background shadows with their intensity.

The weakness of Memoirs of a Geisha, besides the fact that this is often an internal story, is that it skips through scenes without explaining the unique Japanese nature involved, an explanation needed to understand these scenes. For instance, when Sayuri sets up a seduction scene with the American general, you haven't a clue why unless you understood that Noble-san could never be interested in a woman who had given herself up to another man (even though she had done so publicly for a large sum of money). Add to this the idea that this is supposed to be a love story, a string that doesn't quite hold the other marvelous scenes together, and these pieces of incongruity damage the storyline.

However, you still have an engrossing story of the behind-the-scenes battle among powerful women in pre-war Japanese society, and all of that wonderful cinematography of the beautiful country of Japan. I was not disappointed at all in this version, and I'm sure I'll see it again. Memoirs of a Geisha definitely deserves a thumb's up.


At 10:55 AM, Blogger CABlogger said...

I have to agree that the film was slightly lacking. But, since I didn't read the book, my only real critique is that some of the scenes did not have enough time spent/explanation on what the underlying message was supposed to be.


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