MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

PG-13

-By David Noh


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Taking Arthur Golden's best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha, Rob Marshall has directed a splashy pageant that takes young Sayuri (Suzuka Ohgo as a child, Ziyi Zhang as a woman) from her early years, being sold to a geisha house by her indigent parents, to her triumph as top geisha in Kyoto, to the aftermath of World War II, when, stripped of gorgeous kimonos and the rarefied life they represented, she reconstructs herself.

Along the way, Sayuri encounters a cadre of formidable women. Her youth and strange, blue-eyed beauty represent a definite threat to the two formerly ruling geishas, the viciously competitive Hatsumomo (Gong Li) and the more maternal, helpful Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). Men, naturally, figure in Sayuri's life as well. Her favors are sought by The Baron (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa) and picturesquely scarred war hero Nobu (Koji Yakusho), but her heart forever belongs to The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a suave number who showed her a moment of kindness when she was a child that she never forgot. Sayuri keeps her devotion a secret, pining her life away for him in a so-near-yet-so-far dance.

In his second film, Marshall shows the same brio and confidence he did with his debut, Chicago, and Memoirs of a Geisha has a like visual flash and propulsive energy. At times, with all the swirling silk and smoke and veils and slatted lighting, it evokes Josef von Sternberg at his maddest, and is never less than watchable. What gets lost in the mind-blowing brew Marshall has whipped up is a certain essential nuance and delicacy so vital to the "floating world" of the geisha. For a far more accurate picture, one needs to see the films of master investigators like Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse (especially his Flowing). The casting raises a definite point: The three lead actresses are Chinese, and for the discerning, their accents, physiques and body language are as different from a truly Japanese geisha as day is from night.

Marshall seems to have done a tremendous amount of research into this milieu and then thrown much of it out the window, especially with the Hollywood-ized character of Hatsumomo, who struts about with hair chicly undone in a very modern Beyoncé way, completely eschewing the qualities of modesty and graceful elegance which are the benchmarks of this profession. And when Sayuri makes her spectacularly successful dancing debut before le tout Kyoto, her flailing punk-rock number is more akin to Vegas razzle-dazzle than anything else.

As strong as he is visually, Marshall is lacking dramatically, being unable to invest the romantic scenes with anything more than a kitschy cherry-blossom flavor (despite John Williams' surgingly effective score), and the pacing is uneven. The film's most diverting moment occurs when Sayuri finally gets to effectively put down that pesky Hatsumomo in public, but Marshall undermines its effect in a subsequent scene which has Hatsumomo violently threatening the suddenly empowered-but still cowering-girl.

For all of its inaccuracies and over-the-top mise-en-scène, Memoirs is quite entertaining. The sniping among the three women has a campy bitchery to it, and Yeoh actually manages to invest Mameha with an appealing grace and depth. Gong Li amusingly slinks about like Gale Sondergaard at her most dragon-lady, and it's a pity that she wasn't given more to do besides snarl and storm. Zhang suffers prettily and has a doll-like appeal, but not quite enough strength or emotional depth to make you really empathize with her endless romantic obsession with The Chairman. Also, Suzuka Ohgo, who plays her as a child, is so preternaturally exquisite that a certain sense of loss is engendered when she grows into the less special Zhang.

Kaori Momo and Tsai Chin both bring a cackling power to their roles as the older duennas of the geisha house, while as Sayuri's slutty friend Pumpkin, Youki Kudoh shows some snappy spunk in the WWII sequences, which, as directed, are less convincing-very studio-than the earlier scenes. Kudoh also looks right, with her smaller Japanese features and shuffling walk (which turns into a Betty Grable strut) than the Chinese actresses. Marshall seems less interested in the men, who mostly emerge as snappily turned-out cardboard figures-their gruff stoicism seems pretty interchangeable.

-David Noh


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