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Culture Reviews
Memoirs of a Geisha
Dome Cinema 
Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by: Arthur Golden (novel), Robin Swicord (screenplay). Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Kiji Yakusho. 144 mins.

By Alex Meredith

Review Top Sheet: Who needs an introduction? The title gives it away and besides, you’ve probably motored through Arthur Golden’s novel already.

If you haven’t (like me) then this new take on the Cinderella story is unlikely to make you dash out and read it. Though geishas intrigue me, the main effect of watching the film was to heighten my desire to visit Japan. Otherwise, it is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours watching pretty girls in nice frocks, and that’s about it.

Will you like this film?

Yes if: You buy flowers for your living room twice a week and don’t care much for the details of Japanese history.
No if: You have feminist tendencies that are offended by a world where watery-eyed girls fight for the right to auction themselves, serve men tea and dance with fans.
Maybe if: You’re a geisha who’s down on her luck and needs a bit of a PR boost.

Comments: This film is visually very attractive. If it had no sound you would still walk out with a smile on your face. However, if you are looking for something more than celluloid eye-candy then you might be a little disappointed.

The memoirs are presented over three stages of the narrator/main character’s life. Being so sequential, the film chugs along gently, and since the view is so good, there is no chance of dropping off. I would even go so far as to say it is entertaining. The trouble is that neither the dialogue nor the action quite live up to the silky smooth costumes and sets.

Most of the time I felt like I was wandering through an oriental garden full of Japanese tourists speaking bad English.

Out-of-five star ratings:
Story: ****

Story Comments: When a book sells 4 million copies and is translated into 32 languages it’s not because it has a pretty cover. This is a decent yarn.

Though the Cinderella love story is age old, readers and moviegoers have been seduced by the mysterious world of the geisha that this version presents. The narration guides us through this new setting giving the tale a convincing personal edge. I wanted Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) to achieve geisha status like I wanted Rocky to win the heavyweight title.

Putting aside the fact that Golden’s original subject has sued him for misrepresentation, this autobiographical style is thought to be a crucial factor in the book’s success and also makes the film extremely absorbing.

As for the love story; I found this less persuasive. An all-consuming desire borne out of buying a girl a cone of flavoured ice? And there was I wasting my time with chocolates and champagne….

Dialogue Comments: The dialogue is probably the worst aspect of the film. Watching Chinese actresses speak English with a Japanese accent is sometimes painful, other times incomprehensible.

When you put this impediment in the context of the ritualised world of pre-war Japan, then any chance of wit and flowing speech disappears as quickly as cherry blossom in a gale. When tensions mount between rivals Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) and Hatsumomo (Gong Li) the exchanges have a hammy rehearsed feel. If you like women for what they look like rather than what they say, you might be able to let these extraordinarily attractive girls off. I found it a bit wearing.

Substance Comments: Whether you see geishas as jumped-up hookers or masters of the art of seduction, the film presents a new angle on the ancient subject of male-female relationships that is extremely refreshing.

Also, if (like me) you have issues with selling children into slavery to start a cruel and degrading trade in their own flesh, you can’t fail to admire Sayuri’s tale of human triumph over adversity.

However, despite the controversy surrounding geishas, the ending failed to lead me to any solid conclusions. I may have missed something (like reading the book) but I was left completely clueless as to what became of Sayuri at the end. How am I supposed to make a full judgement about the eventful life that has been played out before me without knowing what happened at the end? How can I judge whether it was worth it? It was like stealing a read of a juicy diary then finding the writer can’t be bothered to keep it up. Very annoying.

In addition there is an issue about how realistic the film’s portrayal of geishas in pre-war Kyoto actually is. Some historians claim that even by the 1930s, geishas were no more than embarrassing anachronisms and the suggestion that they were awarded fame and respect is a convenient lie. It is not a point that will keep me awake at night, but one worth noting nonetheless.

Filmcraft comments: Director Marshall has really enjoyed himself with this film. It does not have the razzmatazz of his previous effort – Chicago- but it is a stunningly beautiful picture. From the cramped urban backstreets with their rickshaws and paper lanterns to the windswept rural settings of Sayuri’s childhood and exile I was completely enchanted by Marshall’s Japan. It is enough to make you go out and buy a ticket to Tokyo right there and then. So I did. I leave next week. It is that persuasive.

Back indoors, much of the action takes place in the traditional Japanese geisha house, the okiya. These buildings have many thin sliding doors and whether listening through then, slamming them or casting silhouettes, the director uses the doors brilliantly to increase the drama throughout.

Another strong motif is water. Beyond the constant references to Sayuri’s enchanting eyes, all the crucial moments of the story happen near water giving tranquillity to the film as well as adding to the outstanding beauty.

A taste of the story: Sold by their fisherman father to a Kyoto okiya, a country girl tells the story of her rise to the rank of geisha before war steps in, spoiling the party but reigniting an old flame.

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