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Memoirs Of A Geisha

Memoirs Of A Geisha

By Richa Rudola • March 22nd, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 3/5
Columbia Pictures, Dreamworks

Original release: December 9th, 2005
Running time: 145 minutes

Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: Robin Swicord, Arthur Golden
Composer: John Williams

Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh , Koji Yakusho, Suzuka Ohgo, Kaori Momoi

Memoirs Of A Geisha

As a young woman who was raised to believe she could carve her own path in life, I’ve always been intrigued by the circumstances that lead some women towards the complex gray lives of courtesans. Having grown up in India, I was familiar with several films depicting tawaifs (South Asian courtesans during the Mughal era) in central or key supporting roles such as in Pakeezah (1972), Umrao Jaan (1981) and Devdas (2002) where this path was rarely a first recourse. So I’d been curious to see whether a film about geishas would be any different.

Rob Marshall’s Memoirs Of A Geisha, a sumptuous adaptation of Arthur Golden’s 1998 namesake bestseller, is unarguably a visual feast. The story, as narrated by geisha Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi) looking back on her life, begins when her father sells her and her older sister as young girls to a geisha house in Kyoto. The sisters are further separated when the older one is recruited into a brothel leaving young Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), geisha Sayuri’s childhood name, alone. To recover her sale price, the geisha house mother Okasan (Kaori Momoi) ill-treats the girl and makes her play servant to the okiya’s reigning geisha and bread-winner, Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Like others, Hatsumomo sees much more than rain in Chiyo’s hazel eyes and makes it her personal mission to bring about the girl’s demise.

A chance meeting with a handsome stranger, the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), stirs the desire in Chiyo to become a geisha to devote her life to him despite not being old enough to fully understand what that entails. In this sense, she appears to have chosen the life of a geisha even though she was forcibly placed on this path in the first place. As fate would have it, her dream is realized years later when Kyoto’s premier geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) takes her under her wing and wages a bidding war for her virginity, a disturbing geisha rite of passage. Mameha steers Sayuri in the direction of the Chairman’s business partner Nobu (Koji Yakusho) for reasons unsuspected by her. Thus begins Sayuri’s foray into the tumults of geishadom.

Memoirs Of A Geisha

Memoirs Of A Geisha strives to thrill by letting us into the mysterious and veiled world of geishas. “Geishas are not courtesans. And we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. To be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art”, says Mameha to Chiyo while training her. So rich are the silk tapestries and so rigidly delicate the geisha rituals that we almost forget the ends that seemingly justify the means – entertaining wealthy men in the hopes of acquiring them as lifelong patrons. Even so, Marshall’s treatment of the world of geishas seems a tad bit too keen on imparting rosy-tinged hues to the bifurcated existence of glamorous debt slavery.

The film does educate on the perception of geishas in pre- and post-war Japan and how they eventually came to be misunderstood as prostitutes. This is ably illustrated by the clash of cultures which begins with the arrival of the Americans with WW II. It’s noteworthy to see English-speaking Chinese actors in a film about Japan in what Memoirs Of A Geishaclosely mirrors a Hollywood production. The dialogue takes some getting used to but the hauntingly evocative soundtrack by John Williams with Yo-Yo Ma on the cello and Itzhak Perlman on the violin more than makes up for it.

Gong Li’s ferocious, scheming Hatsumomo provides much needed momentum in an underdeveloped script and becomes the saving grace in what sometimes feels like a beautifully orchestrated dance of desire and devious intrigue. Young Chiyo’s earnestness in the face of oppression won me over and I rooted for her until I couldn’t find the same person in the grown Sayuri. Zhang Ziyi is stunning as a geisha flower rising from the swamp but I wished she’d harnessed her water-sign to forge her own stream rather than dissolving mutely into the pouring of others. Memoirs Of A Geisha fumbles with a good opportunity to rise above the hapless geisha trope to show how the geisha life can have happy endings of their own doing. Instead, the happy Hollywood ending we’re given feels abrupt and implausible.

As with any film, but especially with this one, Memoirs Of A Geisha will illicit different reactions from different viewers. Those looking for a beautiful escape into an exotic world might feel satisfied which is just as well as others that might find it to be a soap-operatic history lesson dressed in a kimono. As much as I enjoyed taking in every frame, I wished I’d seen more behind the white mask of the geisha that could.

Memoirs Of A Geisha

Richa Rudola

Richa Rudola

Richa developed an interest in films while attending a weekly movie club as therapy during her pursuit of a graduate degree in Statistics. The interest evolved into a passion for the visual storytelling medium and she’s currently working on her first screenplay. She prefers films that view the world from a sociological lens and tell stories of courage.

Richa tries to use films as a means for becoming a better person and especially appreciates a film that proves her initial gut instinct wrong. Some of her favorites are All About My Mother, Rosemary's Baby, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Antichrist, In The Mood For Love, Omkara, Andaz Apna Apna and Ponette.

You can follow her on Twitter at @richarudola.

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