Upon seeing Memoirs of a Geisha, screenwriter Barry Sandler commented that it was “insufferable, interminable, excruciating and unendurable — and those were its good qualities.” His assessment pretty much mirrors the bulk of the film’s reviews. Maybe it was all that negative hype — and the lowered expectations that went with along with it — that made me find the film considerably better than I’d dared hope.
I can’t say that Memoirs is a good film, and it’s certainly not action-packed (oh, my, is it ever not action-packed), but it’s not without its merits, either. In the plus column, there’s no denying that it’s every inch a good-looking film — maybe the most purely visually sumptuous film of the year. Oh, sure, it’s utterly manufactured exotica. (Note carefully that little statement on the closing credits that “some scenes” were shot in Culver City, Calif.) And much of its romanticized view of the setting was put into perspective for me by seeing the film with someone who grew up in Kyoto. Having that person then lean over and tell you that that striking row of red gates so beloved of the director is in reality “right next to the DMV” has a seriously demystifying effect.
But really, does it matter? After all, let’s face facts: The original material, Arthur Golden’s novel, is the fictional work of a guy from Chattanooga, who I’m willing to bet is not a geisha (well, maybe after a few drinks at a literary luncheon, but that’s mere speculation on my part). We aren’t exactly starting from the standpoint of stark authenticity. And truth to tell, once you remove the exotica from the story, what you’re left with is soap — high-class soap that at least offers the illusion of some degree of cultural edification. But soap all the same.
The film follows the fate of Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), who is sold by her parents to work in a geisha house, which presents her with an early life that isn’t a whole lot more than a sexualized Asian variant on the young years of any number of Charles Dickens’ much put-upon waifs. The only bright spot comes when she meets a man called the Chairman (Ken Watanabe, Batman Begins). He takes pity on her sadness and buys her a snow-cone (they don’t call it that, but that’s what it is) and she determines to become a geisha so she might one day end up like the two women on their way to the theater with him.
Time passes and Chiyo grows up, transforming in the process into Ziyi Zhang (Hero). And despite the best efforts of ultra-nasty Hatsumomo (Li Gong, 2046), for whom Chiyo had been a maid growing up, Zhang becomes the most famous geisha of her day. Her virginity, in fact, is auctioned off for a record price — not, of course, to the Chairman. Her success is soon eclipsed by World War II, after which nothing is the same — except her devotion to the Chairman. Will this ever be resolved? What do you think?
It doesn’t help that the role of the Chairman doesn’t offer Ken Watanabe a whole lot to do except lend his natural dignity to the proceedings and wear a succession of elegantly tailored suits as he wanders in and out of the film like a plot device — something that makes her devotion to him a little hard to understand. The much more interesting war-scarred Nobu (Koji Yakusho, The Hunter and the Hunted), who is obviously devoted to her, seems a better choice, but that would be too easy for the story’s inherent soapiness.
It’s all beautiful to look at, and it’s well acted, within the confines of what the actors are required to do. I found the story sufficiently engaging that I didn’t actually fidget in my seat, but it was a near thing. Still, Memoirs of a Geisha is not unwatchable — once. Rated PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke