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MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Suzuka Ohgo, Youki Kudoh, Kaori Momoi
Director: Rob Marshall
Audio: English 5.1, French 5.1
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Sony Pictures
Features: Two commentaries, eleven featurettes, two art galleries, trailers, recipes
Length: 145 minutes
Release Date: March 28, 2006

"I was like water.  Water can carve its way, even through stone.  And when trapped, water makes a new path."

Film *** ½

The production history behind the film adaptation of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha is almost as interesting as the eventual film itself.  The novel recounts the story of a naïve country girl's metamorphosis into a mature and sophisticated Kyoto geisha.  With its vividly descriptive passages, lyrical prose, and lush imagery, Memoirs of a Geisha soon became a popular best-seller upon its initial publication in 1997, and it was only a matter of weeks before the film rights to the novel were snatched up.

Hollywood's premier director, Steven Spielberg, was one of the novel's many admirers, and he hoped to direct the film adaptation himself.  However, long production delays, further complicated by Spielberg's commitment to other film projects (Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report), eventually forced the director to assume a secondary role as producer.

Many subsequent directors, including Brett Ratner and Spike Jonze, were at one point or another attached to the project.  Nevertheless, Memoirs of a Geisha continued to linger for years in a pre-production quagmire until director Rob Marshall was persuaded to helm the big screen adaptation.  Fresh from his own triumphant film adaptation of the Broadway hit Chicago (2002), Marshall was a solid choice for director, as his background in Broadway dance and choreography had been well-suited to Chicago's dynamic flair and would serve Memoirs of a Geisha's many visual flourishes quite well.

However, the casting of predominately non-Japanese actors in the film's most important roles proved to be a more controversial decision.  The three principal roles eventually went to Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh, respectively Chinese, Chinese, and Malaysian in ethnicity.  This did not bode well with the Japanese film community, which protested the relative absence of prominent Japanese actors for what was essentially a Japanese story (although featured cast members Ken Watanabe, Kaori Momoi, and Youki Kudoh were themselves Japanese).  Across the waters, the Chinese government itself feared a strong public backlash over the film's Chinese casting due to long-standing, bitter nationalist sentiments between China and Japan.  As China has been wont to do over the years whenever confronted with a controversial film (even a domestic one), it simply banned Memoirs of a Geisha outright upon the film's initial release.

The source novel encountered its own problems, too.  Author Golden found himself facing a lawsuit from Mineko Iwasaki, a former geisha whose interviews had provided Golden with invaluable background information for his novel.  Among other things, Mineko Iwasaki was upset with the novel's subplot involving the auction of a geisha's mizuage (virginity) and the novel's portrayal of her former profession as a form of legalized prostitution.  Historically, a geisha is an artist-entertainer, not a prostitute.  The modern-day stereotype of the geisha as a prostitute developed during the post-war occupation of Japan when destitute young street walkers began to pass themselves off as geisha for bored but cash-laden American soldiers.  Given that Mineko Iwasaki considered herself to be the model for the novel's central character, she was clearly not pleased with what she perceived as historical inaccuracies in the novel.

And of course, as with any literary adaptation, the film must confront the dilemma of how best to translate the source novel's text passages on-screen .  Should the filmmakers stay true to the strict letter of the text, even if that should result in a duller film, or should they remain faithful to the spirit of the text, even if that should introduce inevitable changes in the story?

Rob Marshall's eventual adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha falls somewhere in between.  It is a well-crafted and gorgeous film, but one whose story feels somewhat contrived, with characters who resemble general stereotypes - the young ingénue, a jealous aging rival, a wise teacher, a dashing and gentlemanly hero.  Nevertheless, if we simply accept these characters for what they are and ignore all the pre-production controversy, Memoirs of a Geisha can be a rewarding film.  The film's cinematography, set design, and costuming are all quite mesmerizing, and the film's very subject matter allows for numerous flashes of breathtaking colors and poetic motion, almost like a lyrical dance that simply waltzes from scene to scene.

Memoirs of a Geisha opens in Japan, circa 1929, when young Sakamoto Chiyo and her older sister are sold by their destitute rural family for money.  Chiyo ends up in the Nitta okiya, a geisha house in the Gion district of Kyoto.  Torn from the only life she has even known, the frightened but headstrong Chiyo must contend with the okiya's demanding "Mother" (Kaori Momoi), who belittles or berates the little girl for the smallest infraction, and the arrogant and conniving Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the okiya's main geisha.  Hatsumomo recognizes Chiyo for what she will become as she matures - a threat to Hatsumomo's own prominence in the district and a future rival for Hatsumomo's aspirations of inheriting the okiya one day.

For the time being, Chiyo has no interest in becoming a geisha.  She basically lives out a tiresome existence as the okiya's servant girl.  Chiyo's only true desire is to relocate her sister and to flee the city of Kyoto. When that plan fails and Chiyo seemingly resigns herself to a sad fate, a chance encounter on a bridge one day changes her dour outlook on life.  Chiyo meets a kind and wealthy Chairman (Ken Watanabe) on his way to see the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.  For Chiyo, it is young love at first sight, as the Chairman is the first genuinely friendly person Chiyo has met since her arrival in Kyoto.  From this point onwards, Chiyo strives towards a new purpose in life with single-minded determination - she will become a true geisha that someday she might capture the Chairman's regard for her not as a little child requiring soothing and comfort but as a mature woman deserving of his amorous affections.

The years pass and Chiyo grows up.  One day, the wealthy geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) arrives at the Nitta okiya with a proposition.  Mameha is the Gion district's most successful geisha, and through a personal agenda of her own, she wishes to train Chiyo properly in the art of becoming a true geisha.  A wager is made between Mother and Mameha, and soon Chiyo is taken under Mameha's gentle instructions as a maiko (apprentice).  If Chiyo should succeed, she will be able to pay off her debt to the Nitta okiya and claim independence at last.  With Mameha's help, Chiyo begins to learn the many nuances of becoming a successful geisha.

And so does young Chiyo become Sayuri, the Nitta okiya's most desirable young geisha.  Yet for all her early success, Sayuri's secret motivation remains the same - winning the heart of the Chairman that he might choose to become her danna (official patron).

Sayuri is surely destined to become the most successful geisha of the Kyoto hanamachi (geisha district), although fate intervenes in the form of World War II.  From this point in the film onwards, stripped of the glamour, beauty, and ritualized order of the geisha way of life, Memoirs of a Geisha starts to lose steam.  The storyline is simply not deep enough to sustain its narrative tension in the absence of the film's overwhelmingly gorgeous visuals. 

Fortunately, the film's relatively faithful rendition of the storyline should please the novel's numerous readers.  Among the film's performances, Gong Li's portrayal of Hatsumomo is the most energetic.  She has a somewhat thankless role as the aging and jealously bitter older geisha but wholeheartedly devours every scene she is in.  Michelle Yeoh as Mameha turns in a reliably solid performance which certainly benefits from Yeoh's particularly gorgeous and sophisticated allure in this film.  Zhang Ziyi is an ephemeral beauty who is credible although occasionally hesitant in her first English-language role.  Ironically, the casting of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi in this film as closely-linked rivals is an example of art imitating life (both actresses were protégées of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, with Zhang Ziyi replacing the aging Gong Li).  As the male romantic lead, Ken Watanabe is a bit of a blank due to his limited screen time.  There is a palpable absence of real chemistry between Watanabe and Zhang.  To be fair, they are hindered by their infrequent on-screen time together and their characters' generally repressed Japanese nature, wherein neither can reasonably be expected to reveal his or her own true feelings.

In essence, Memoirs of a Geisha really tells two different fairy tales.  One, the ugly duckling transformation of insecure little Chiyo into a beautiful and confident geisha, is quite compelling and worthy of the film's unparalleled production values.  The other, an un-involving cinderella story of a young girl infatuated with an older man, feels underdeveloped and never transcends its rather conventional limitations.  When the story focuses upon Chiyo and her various relationships with other geisha, Memoirs of a Geisha is very good indeed.  Do see the film for this reason or to experience director Rob Marshall's sumptuous realization of Arthur Golden's prose.  Do not see the film expecting a particularly original love story, however.

Video ****

Memoirs of a Geisha won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Costume Design, and Art Direction.  Suffice it to say that on this DVD the film looks absolutely gorgeous, with a superb transfer and lush, deep colors, undoubtedly one of the best-looking DVD releases of 2006.

Audio ****

If the filmmakers had been really brave, they would have made this film entirely in the Japanese language.  Instead, using non-Japanese actors speaking English inflected with fake Japanese accents (when some of the actors could not even speak English well, or at all, prior to filming) creates some difficulties.  Thank goodness for subtitles.

This minor squabble aside, the film sounds awesome.  The audio mix is aggressive and makes full use of the dynamic surround environment, even in the film's quieter moments.

Features ****

The first disc in this two-disc set opens with a preview for The Da Vinci Code.  Elsewhere on the disc are also trailers for Fun with Dick & Jane, Rent, The White Countess, The Legend of Zorro, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Cutting Edge: Going for the Gold, and The Frank Capra Premiere DVD Collection (featuring It Happened One Night, You Can't Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Platinum blonde, and American Madness).

Aside from the movie itself, the remaining features on Disc One are two commentary tracks.  The first track is by director Rob Marshall and co-producer John DeLuca.  Both men discuss the process of adapting the source novel's rich descriptions into the film's visual passages.  Marshall notes further challenges in making the film, particularly the language barrier.  He also describes the importance of the film's water imagery, which reflects the main character's unwavering perseverance in face of lifelong adversity.  The second commentary track focuses on the production itself and features input from costume designer Colleen Atwood, production designer John Myhre, and film editor Pietro Scalia. 

Disc Two holds the rest of the bonus features in this set.  Sayuri's Journey: From the Novel to the Screen (14 min.) discusses the character of Sayuri and reveals some of the extensive research conducted by novelist Arthur Golden in creating the world of the geisha.  Golden was also influenced by a book by Liza Dalby (who was also a consultant for the film).  There are numerous archival clips included in this featurette, which delves into the film's long production history.  Soft-spoken Zhang Ziyi, with her tenuous English, is as cute as a button in interview clips within this featurette and elsewhere on the disc, too.

The Road to Japan (5 min.) follows the crew on a research and location scouting tour through Japan.  Some of the fantastic scenery noted on this tour (and eventually shown in the film) had never before been photographed for a western film.  In particular, the thousands of torri gates near the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto provide one of the visual highlights in the film.

Geisha Boot Camp (12 min.) presents a glimpse into the intense training required of the actresses.  With Liza Dalby as consultant, the actresses learn the nuances of being a geisha, from moving and dancing like a geisha to playing a three-string shamisen and even wearing a kimono properly.

Building the Hanamachi (12 min.) follows the elaborate recreation of the Gion district on a studio back lot.  Research includes scouting trips to Kyoto and the construction of miniature sets, with time-lapsed photography recording the actual construction of the enormous village set.  Meticulous attention to details, including the importation of authentic materials, brings this set very much to life.

The Look of a Geisha (16 min.) examines the sensual makeup, many fashionable kimonos, and elaborate hair styles of the film.  The gorgeous costumes were individually tailored to reflect the emotional nature of each character.  Enthralled actress Youki Kudoh, who portrays a maiko in the Nitta okiya, even recounts trying unsuccessfully to acquire some of the film's fabulous kimonos after the production.

The Music of "Memoirs" (10 min.) focuses on the score by John Williams.  In scoring the film, Williams collaborated closely with director Marshall to develop music that would properly complement the power of the on-screen visuals.  Williams incorporated traditional Japanese musical instruments into his score, such as the stringed koto and the eerie-sounding shakuhachi (Japanese flute).  Highlighted in this featurette are Chiyo's cello theme, played by Yo-yo Ma, and the Chairman's waltz-like violin theme, played by Itzhak Perlman.

A Geisha's Dance (8 min.) shows rehearsals for the film's various dance sequences.  The dances are revealed to be somewhat contemporary variations on the traditional style of geisha dancing.  In particular, we see several of Zhang Ziyi's dance rehearsals.

The World of the Geisha (8 min.) briefly explores the historical context of the geisha in Japanese society.  The profession was originally a male-dominated craft of artisan-entertainers but has evolved radically over the centuries.  Liza Dalby, the only foreign woman ever trained as a geisha, provides much of the commentary in this featurette.

The Way of the Sumo (6 min.) is a short featurette about the film's sumo wrestling scene.  We briefly glimpse the rigorous and ritualized sumo way of life.  Authentic wrestlers were used for this film.

Director Rob Marshall's Story (10 min.) is a gush piece that touches upon the making of the film from Marshall's standpoint and the enthusiasm he brought to the set.  The latter half of this featurette focuses upon old family photos and news clips accompanying Marshall's own reminisces about his childhood and the musical theater.

Internationally-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa has a cameo role in the film as a kimono maker.  In A Day with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa (10 min.), we catch the master chef in his regular day job as he buys fresh fish at the daily markets and creates various sushi dishes, including three of his favorite recipes - New Style Sashimi, Black Cod with Miso, and Mushroom Toban Yaki.  The cooking directions for these three tasty dishes are provided separately.

Lastly, there are two art galleries consisting of twenty-two behind-the-scenes photos and fifteen costume design illustrations.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Tsai Chin, who plays the role of Auntie in the Nitta okiya, was formerly a Bond girl in You Only Live Twice!

Summary:

Memoirs of a Geisha is an epic romance adorned in remarkably luxurious costumes and period sets.  A beauty to behold from start to finish, this film brings to vibrant life the vanished, sensual world of the traditional geisha.

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