Memoirs of a Geisha

The Japanese have been making movies about geishas for years: quiet, contemplative and sad films that ponder the fates of women sold into a life of sexual servitude. Even though they were clearly in awe of the rituals of the women in Kyoto’s red-light Gion district, master filmmakers like Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse still never lost sight of the fact that geishas had to bury their true feelings behind a powdered mask of duty and subservience.

In adapting Arthur Golden’s bestselling novel Memoirs of a Geisha to the big screen, American director Rob Marshall (Chicago) has achieved something the Japanese never did: He’s turned one geisha’s life story into a Harry Potter movie.

The comparisons are unavoidable. As a child, the young Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is torn from her miserable little fishing village and spirited away to a dark and mysterious train station, where she boards a car filled with other young protégées bound for Gion. There, a distinguishing physical trait (blue eyes as opposed to Potter’s trademark scar) makes her the envy of a pair of rival tutor-madams. Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), the more sage and knowledgeable of the two, takes Chiyo under her wing and into the halls of Tokyo’s most renowned geisha-training centers, where the young girl scores points by happily submitting to various dance, etiquette and men-wooing challenges (Quidditch has nothing on this).

Blossoming into an elegant young woman, Chiyo (now played by Ziyi Zhang) is renamed Sayuri and prepares to do battle with her longtime enemy, the bitchy, devious Draco Malfoy — er, Hatsumomo (Gong Li).

From there out, it’s a shrieking, hair-pulling battle for geisha supremacy: Alliances are made, backs are stabbed and rumors are created, all in Sayuri’s effort to sell her mizuage (translation: her cherry) to the highest bidder. All the while, the demure Sayuri pines not for the coarse, brash sugar daddies that bid on her, but for the love of one sugar daddy in particular, the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who once showed her kindness as a child (um, eww). Will Hatsumomo ruin Sayuri’s reputation before she can become the Chairman’s mistress? Is Mameha really looking out for her best interests? Will World War II come and ruin the world they all hold dear?

Nothing as icky and inelegant as sex infects Marshall’s cherry-blossom-strewn fantasyland. To watch Memoirs, you’d think that geishas were just girls sent to a super-prestigious finishing school in order to sell their virginity off to one rich man, never to have to turn tricks for cash again. It’s true that the women are more than just common prostitutes, offering graceful companionship to powerful men, but the director steadfastly refuses to delve beyond the white face paint and find out what really happens to a woman’s emotional state after a life of male servitude. Instead, he’s more content to focus on all the baubles, beads and bling of the lifestyle, at the expense of the characters. Admittedly, the costumes, makeup and production design are stunning — you might as well give the crew their Oscars now — but the movie is an empty, hollow spectacle of a never-ending diva parade. Think of it as Extreme Geisha Makeover, or maybe The Princess Diaries Goes to Japan.

Much has been made of the non-Japanese casting in the three lead female parts; although it adds to the weird, anachronistic and inauthentic feel of the film, that’s the least of Geisha’s problems. What hamstrings the film most is Marshall’s insistence that he’s presenting something tasteful and dignified, when really he’s delivering a mildly trashy soap opera. When a madam shoves her fingers in a geisha’s crotch and smells them to see if she’s been with a man, the movie feels more like a cheap romance novel than anything the Japanese would ever produce.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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