Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

Christmas Eve found my girlfriend and myself at the theater watching Memoirs of a Geisha. I was not particularly interested in going, but since I did drag her to see Serenity I felt obligated to follow suit and let her pick out a movie for a change. I was pleasantly surprised.

I went into this movie with zero expectations. I knew the actors, but barely the story and rarely do I go into a movie so lacking in knowledge.

I was entranced by the music and as the credits rolled at the end I realized why – John Williams, with violin solos by Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma on cello. One thing I did know was the outrage of using Chinese actors in Japanese rolls, but that was a financial decision, and not because of the assertion that all Asian people look alike. Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh are not only great beauties and gifted actresses, but box office gold. Even in Japan, Zhang and Li outgross any Japanese actress. Believe me when I say Michelle Yeoh did a James Bond movie and that name recognition alone might put somebody in the seat.

Adapted by Robin Swicord from the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden, Geisha follows the life of Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), a poor fisherman’s daughter who sells her off to an okiya (or geisha house), separating her from her beloved older sister. From that point on, it’s Cinderella right down to the rags to riches motif and the wicked stepsister, the vampy Hatsumomo (Gong Li).

Ultimately, it’s a snowcone from an influential Osaka factory owner known only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) that changes things for her instead of a fairy godmother, but the effect is the same. Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) takes the young girl under her wing and transforms Chiyo, now named Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) into the geisha-hottie of the moment. The only thing missing is a montage of development from failure to facepaint.

The appeal of the film no doubt will be in the romantic elements presented and the viciousness between the lead female roles. The story was familiar, but the acting elevated it all. Most notably Zhang, whose perfect face and beautiful, blue-gray eyes are repeatedly filmed in screen-filling close-up, takes over the role with silent intensity. All three actresses (Zhang, Yeoh and Li) express themselves emotionally in ways I wish more American actors would emulate. Supposedly, the three ladies weren’t exactly lady-like to each other on the set, so the simmering jealousy could have bubbled over into their performances.

My favorite scene is a hypnotizing dance routine performed by Sayuri — in sky-high platform sandals mind you, during some sort of indoor snowstorm — on her first night as a geisha. It was tantalizing without ever showing a single hair out of place.

Towards the end, I wondered if we were going to find Sayuri in Nagaski or Hiroshima finally expressing her love to the Chairman as the Enola Gay approaches. I was wrong about that, but not so much regarding the Chairman and Sayuri finally getting together. It was a little too pat for my tastes and just a hair too Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes-ian with the age difference.

Overall, the movie was probably worth the price we paid. It was a nice diversion and as we walked to our car I imagined cherry blossoms falling instead of the light drizzle and fog that probably meant Santa needed Rudolph later on that night.