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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005

Welcome to Kyoto, California

Memoirs of a Geisha

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Sayuri
Director: Rob Marshall
Running time: 145 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

It's a tough job but someone's gotta do it. It all strikes me as a bit perverse, though, having me -- a Japanese woman who spent part of her childhood in a hanamachi (geisha district) -- write a review of "Memoirs of a Geisha" (released in Japan as "Sayuri").

News photo
Zhang Ziyi in "Memoirs of a Geisha"

There are just so many things wrong with the whole package, which is plastered with kitschy oriental cliches. We're talking about a Chinese actress speaking in that stilted Hollywood Asian-English (immortalized by Mr. Yuniyoshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's") in the role of a Japanese geisha during the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1930s. It's hard to know how to handle this: go ballistic, start apologizing, giggle nervously or what?

Late into the movie, when American G.I.'s are in control of Kyoto, seasoned geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) wonders out loud to her protege Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi): "What do we know about entertaining Americans?" This pretty much sums it all up. From start to finish, "Memoirs" is hot in pursuit of entertaining a U.S. audience, certain in the conviction that if it can wow the folks in America, it can wow the world.

And who better to helm such a project than Oscar-winning director Rob Marshall ("Chicago")? Marshall can slap show-biz extravaganza onto the screen like no other; he probably shouts "Give 'em the old razzle dazzle!" in his sleep. And to that end, most of what made Arthur Golden's original novel compelling has been trashed -- stuff like subtlety, historical context and detail. But most jarring of all is the plain-as-day, glaring disrespect for a foreign (as in non-U.S., and as such, incomprehensible) culture. Really, is super-entertainment so important as to justify the trampling of what made the story so fascinating in the first place? Well, according to "Memoirs" that's a resounding "Yeah!"

Marshall and his crew (and let's not forget that Steven Spielberg is the executive producer) never pause for breath as they bombard us with pathos, intrigue, fury, sex and passion. The capper is a geisha dance scene that's straight out of Broadway. Never mind that no young geisha in the prewar period would wear glitter eye-shadow and dance solo, on a stage with artsy blue lighting, her hair flowing hip and loose and her limbs contorting to snazzy, modern ballet movements.

In the same way, Marshall turns a renowned Kyoto hanamachi of the 1930s into a cacophonous, chaotic confusion that's more Chinatown, L.A. (or the Hollywood rendition thereof). According to the production notes, Marshall felt that the present-day Kyoto was too "modern," and so he created an impressively colossal geisha-district set in Southern California, complete with tile-roofed houses, wooden bridges and cobblestone streets.

Unfortunately, the whole thing reeks of a souvenir shop extravaganza, like they upended the shelves of Oriental Bazaar right onto the streets. There's just no regard here for hanamachi aesthetics that disdained all that was obvious, conspicuous or abundant; the atmosphere depended on how much was hidden and how much was subtly suggested. But apparently, that's no way to razzle-dazzle 'em.

All is not lost, though, for some of Asia's best actresses pull off top-notch performances. Zhang Ziyi is superb as the passive/aggressive Sayuri who was sold by her impoverished parents into an okiya (geisha house) at the age of 9 and, against all odds, flowered into the most celebrated geisha in Kyoto. Zhang adds a cold steeliness to her fragile, demure demeanor, which, of course, is the prerequisite trait of a true geisha. The way she can go from casting down her eyes, saying, "Do I please you?" to a wealthy client, to exchanging sarcasm gunfire with older rival Hatsumomo (Gong Li) is excellent.

But it's Gong who steals every scene she's in, decked out in punkish hairdos and fantastic avant-garde kimono garb that have no connection to historical reality, but look sizzling and, with Marshall-san at the helm, that's all that matters. Sayuri is likened to water ("You have eyes like the rain"), but Hatsumomo is all burning flames. She unleashes her fury against anyone who dares to cross her and is fearless about the consequences. Michelle Yeoh is also wonderful as ex-geisha queen Mameha, who takes Sayuri under her wing and coaches her on all aspects of the geisha aesthetics ("For us, pain and beauty always come side by side"). Mameha is, perhaps, the most thankless and difficult character to play, for she must mute her beauty and femininity in order to enhance Sayuri's. Yeoh is brave enough to go for camp. The night Mameha auctions off Sayuri's virginity to the highest bidder (a sleazy old doctor), she tells her despairing young disciple in a deeply profound tone, "Celebrate this moment, Sayuri. Tonight, all the lights of the hanamachi burn for you."

On occasion, "Memoirs" dips into the spirit of the original novel, which stressed, above all, that geisha were not prostitutes but "moving works of art in the floating world." In an age when very few women could find employment, becoming a geisha was practically the only "profession" available, and the okiya the only place where women could live and exist, independent of their families. An okiya functioned like any company, and a good geisha was the one who knew how to promote herself, worked hard at pleasing her clients and brought back the earnings (and connections) that would keep her colleagues and the mother-boss, "Okaasan" (played by a stunning Kaori Momoi), fed and clothed.

Being a geisha was a business, and a ruthless one at that. There was simply no room for concepts like equality, rights and ethics -- either a geisha was good at what she did, in which case she brought success and prosperity to the okiya, or she didn't, and ran the risk of starving. Momoi's Okaasan portrays this excellently -- forever balancing the books and worrying about funds, she makes it extremely clear that nothing with her is ever personal, but strictly business.

Still, "Memoirs" has too much that's hard on the eye (and mind), not least of all the love scenes between Sayuri and her protector, who goes by the name of Chairman (played by Ken Watanabe at his most insipid). It's one thing to see the city of Kyoto misrepresented, but when we're asked to believe that a much older Japanese businessman and a young geisha during the 1940s would engage in physical contact in broad daylight, standing under a willow tree in a Japanese garden . . . surely that was when the theater should have released some emergency oxygen masks from the ceiling to save us all from hyperventilating. I looked around to see if everyone else felt the same, but no. This being Japan, the audience was restrained, respectful, polite. If only the movie had some of the same qualities.

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