Memoirs of a Geisha

January 12th, 2006 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

There’s a quality every film studio and distributor wants to capture in a film. No, not art — that’s for the director to worry about, and by the times enough punters have bought tickets and ensured the film’s profitability, who the hell cares about stuff like that? Certainly not stockholders in News Ltd, TimeWarner or Vivendi.

You sometimes hear it referred to as ‘buzz’, but that can just mean the cultural chatter about the film and doesn’t necessarily isolate the number of people who want to see it.

A more precise term is the ‘want-see’ factor, which refers to the amount of desire out there to see a film. Sometimes it can be generated or arise spontaneously through massive fan base foreknowledge (Star Wars), sometimes it can be bought about by blanketing the world with marketing that costs as much as the movie (perfected in the late 1990s with films like Independence Day). Sometimes it doesn’t even take the form of advertising. The general assumption among many fans that Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made might not have been postulated by the rights holder of the film, but they’ve more than likely helped encourage it.

So we come to the film with the most ‘want-see’ so far in 2006, Memoirs of a Geisha, thanks in part to the huge success of the novel upon which it’s based and also to the speculation for so long that a certain Mr Spielberg would direct. Spielberg passed and after a long gestation period, Geisha arrives courtesy of Rod (Chicago) Marshall. Together with talented Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe (In The Cut, Chicago) and costumer extraordinaire Colleen Atwood (Chicago, Lemony Snicket), it was a given that Geisha would be a fantastic-looking product.

But as Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition and Yimou Zhang’s Hero showed us, a striking look can drown a story that isn’t robust enough to match it, and Geisha suffers somewhat from the same fate. Feeling a little too much like both a cheap thriller and an uninteresting midday movie, the execution doesn’t fit the nobility of the message (either that or the theme is too strong for a piece of popcorn entertainment).

In fact, one wonders why Marshall didn’t opt to shoot the whole thing in its native language with subtitles. Doing so gave films like Crouching Tiger and Passion of the Christ an immeasurable boost of credibility and Geisha could have tricked us into thinking it was much loftier than it really was employing the same technique.

A young villager and her sister are awoken one night, bundled into a wagon and shipped to the big city in pre-war Japan where they’re sold to a geisha house to learn the ancient art of being demure doormats and performing monkeys for influential men.

We follow Sayuri (Zhang, the go-to girl for every attractive young Asian girl part in Hollywood) as she grows up learning the ways of geisha-dom, everything from dressing and painting yourself with exacting precision to being forbidden from ever experiencing love or being in control of your own destiny.

The problem with Geisha is that too much of it just doesn’t wash. Apart from being at times outright boring, we see this girl sold by her own father into a life of what was essentially prostitution (albeit better regarded than it is in the West today).

The movie should be about how, driven by hatred, she trains in a military installation and returns to her village to exact bloody revenge on her parents.

Instead, Sayuri ends up idealising the life of a Geisha and wanting desperately to be one, forgetting the sister she says in a throwaway comment she never sees again. And that’s not even accounting for the cruelty her peers, owners and — later — rivals show her as she grows up. Sayuri is Japan’s own Stolen Generation, and ten years ago in the midst of the PC era the film wouldn’t have been made (or would have been made very differently).

You might already have heard critical comment on the racial issues involved — many people are upset by the fact that the major characters are played by Chinese actresses, and you wonder if Japanese audiences are watching Yeoh and Zhang onscreen playing geishas the way we would watching Ice Cube play Ned Kelly.

But there’s another angle to the debate about authenticity; it’s story about the struggle of a very distinct kind of woman — in a film directed by a man, based on a book written by a man.

Don’t listen to any of it; Marshall and his team bring (author) Arthur Golden’s world to life with astonishing realism, and Yeoh, Zhang and their supporting cast portray the life of a geisha just as faithfully. The arts is about empathy, and no artist is shut out of any area of exploration because of their gender or race any more than discrimination should affect any other area of life.


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