Wednesday 1 April 2020

Movie Review: Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005)

A drama and romance epic, Memoirs Of A Geisha reveals a corner of Japanese culture from the perspective of a young girl sold into a life of service. The film weaves a cultural spell but is overlong and cloaked in haughty self-importance.

The setting is Japan in the period between the two World Wars. Chiyo is a young girl with beautiful eyes, the daughter of a struggling fisherman. At nine years old she is separated from her sister Satsu and sold into the care of Nitta (Kaori Momoi), the "Mother" responsible for training and nurturing future geishas in Kyoto. At Nitta's house Chiyo meets another young trainee Pumpkin, as well as leading geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), who is arrogant and unfriendly.

One day a despondent Chiyo has a chance encounter with a distinguished businessman known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), and sets her sights on becoming the best possible geisha to win his heart. Soon the kindly geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) selects Chiyo as a mentee and accelerates her training. The adult Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) adopts the name Sayuri and indeed becomes a coveted geisha, creating a vicious rivalry with the resentful Hatsumomo.

Sayuri never gives up hope of reuniting with the Chairman, but to increase Sayuri's desirability and market value, Mameha introduces her to other men, including the engineer Nobu (Kōji Yakusho), Dr. Crab (Randall Duk Kim) and The Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). The intervention of World War Two soon changes everything.

The settings, production design, costumes, cinematography and make-up are all lavish, and Ziyi Zhang in the central role delivers understated dedication. But Memoirs Of A Geisha is ultimately an effusive production teetering on the tip of a small story. The novel by Arthur Gordon is brought to the screen by director Rob Marshall, and the film is too grandiose for its own good. The substance of the twee story is overloaded with petty inter-geisha jealousies and infantile infatuation, and is simply incapable of sustaining or justifying a 145 minute epic.

After a slow start and excruciatingly repetitive scenes of young Chiyo yearning to be reunited with her sister, the second act starts to flow better. The introduction of Michelle Yeoh's steady presence as mentor Mameha boosts the energy level, and Chiyo's transformation into Sayuri offers an intriguing peek into the geisha culture.

But then the bland interpersonal conflicts with Hatsumomo kick in, and despite a powerful Gong Li antagonist presence the film quickly sinks into the amateur theatrics of geishas undermining each other. These are followed by a sordid loss-of-virginity auction, the film's emphasis on portraying geishas as elegant companions adept at music, culture and reading undermined by a straightforward sex-for-sale subplot.

Finally an interminable post-war fourth act combines stereotypical boorish Americans abroad with a late-in-the-day romantic triangle plus petty score settling, and by this stage the sun of enthusiasm starts to set even in the east. Memoirs Of A Geisha wears a pretty kimono, but takes an inordinate amount of time wrapping it up.

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