Sunday, 20 September 2020
Memoirs of a Geisha
Written by Sandra Fitzpatrick   
Sunday, 01 January 2006 20:05

I just watched a commercial for Memoirs of a Geisha that described it as being a “Cinderella story”. To whatever critic out there branded this movie with that phrase, I would like to say “Thank you for totally missing the whole point of the story”. If being sold into slavery, physically abused, hired out to men, and finally ending up “the other woman” to Prince Charming is a Cinderella story, than the Disney version is seriously lacking! In truth Memoirs of a Geisha is a glimpse into a dying world – a world.

The film opens on a rain soaked fishing village where Chiyo and her sister are yanked from the bedside of their dying mother and loaded onto a train to Kyoto. The older sister is immediately sold into prostitution, but Chiyo narrowly escapes the same fate because of her unusual blue eyes. She is bought by a geisha house and eventually sent to school to learn the mysterious art. Life is hard on her, mostly because of the constant jealousy of the house geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Lee). Hatsumomo is beautiful but a cold beauty, like a snake. Jealous of anyone she deems a competitor she makes it her personal duty to cause misery for Chiyo.

The kindness of a complete stranger causes Chiyo to become obsessed with a man she knows only as “The Chairman”. Desperate to be near the dashing businessman she vows to become the best geisha in Kyoto in hopes that he will seek her out and recognize her blue eyes. Circumstances will bring her at once closer and farther away from her dreams.

It took me a lot of thought to realize what was lacking in this film. When I read the book by Arthur Golden a couple of years ago I was enchanted by the voice of this lost girl whose life seems to carry her swiftly with the current. Through the narrative we learn along with her about the world of geisha. Her narrow view is all we can see of the grand plans manipulating her life. You get the feeling that you are spying into a private world and learning secrets you shouldn’t know. It dawned on me that this is precisely what is missing in the film adaptation.

I am thinking it must be the script that is responsible for this lack of personality. It is not an obviously bad script, but must be if it does not convey the proper tone. You will probably enjoy this movie more if you haven’t read the book. But that is a Catch-22 since the book is a worthy read.

This is not a low budget movie and it shows visually. The sets and costumes are opulent; especially in scenes like the dance performance and the cherry blossom orchard. The camera work is nice, though I did wish sometimes that they would quit it with the close-ups. They tend to be overdone.

The actors are mostly talents that we don’t get to see enough of in Canada. Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is stunning as Mameha. She is a rival to Hatsumomo and takes young Chiyo under her wing. Ziyi Zhang (House of Flying Daggers) plays Chiyo, who is later dubbed Sayuri. I really enjoyed Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) in the role of The Chairman. There was a bit of controversy regarding the cast of Chinese born actors in a Japanese film. The choice of cast was designed to appeal to American audiences who only recognize a handful of Asian actors. Nationality would have mattered more if the film had been subtitled as it should have been, but it was filmed in English.

I guess I have mixed feelings about Memoirs of a Geisha. Perhaps my love of the book is getting in the way of an unbiased opinion. But I know one thing for sure: “Sayuri” doesn’t spell “Cinderella”. I give Memoirs of a Geisha 6 out of 10 stars.