Cinema Signal:

Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
The bestseller

. "Memoirs of a Geisha"

With nothing more under his directorial belt than this film and his debut picture, "Chicago," Rob Marshall has more than demonstrated his great eye and taste. Even though Steven Spielberg once almost took the helm, the picture that we have here indicates that Marshall was the perfect man to bring Arthur Golden's amazing book to the screen. The credit for an exemplary adaptation is, of course, shared by screenwriter Robin Swicord, who found a way to hit every one of the dramatic turns, emotional depths, and richness of detail in the best selling novel. Add to that two of the most beautiful women in the world (Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi in my humble opinion), a world class cast, and all the cinematic elements necessary for a magical visual realization.

The central figure is Chiyo, (later named Sayuri Nitta for her patron and her Geisha house), who narrates her story (Shizuko Hoshi). As a young girl (spunky Suzuka Ohgo) and the younger daughter of an impoverished fisherman whose wife is dying, she's sold and spirited away with her sister to the Gion district of Kyoto, where she finds herself painfully separated from her sibling and a virtual slave in a Geisha House. Dominating the place is "Mother" (Kaori Momoi) but the one whose income is keeping the business afloat is the Geisha star of the premises, Hatsumomo (Gong Li).

Hatsumomo's reknown for singular beauty is nearly uncontested in the Geisha quarter and she's known far and wide. But, she's also an aging prima donna with a cautionary eye to potential threats. Early on, she provokes newcomer Chiyo by forbidding her to enter her room or touch her. Sensing rivalry ahead, she promotes Chiyo's liason with her sister so that they might escape and be out of her hair. But it goes awry for Chiyo, and the manipulative Geisha is stuck with her nominal house enemy.

Crying on a bridge, one day, Chiyo is spotted by The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a fashionable man who cuts a handsome figure with with his two Geisha accompanying him to a play. But his sensitivity is as great as his eye, and he befriends the sad girl with his handkerchief to dry her eyes and a cone of sweet ices to raise her spirits. She's never experienced such kindness before and will never forget the man who offered it. Her heart and all her energies are now directed at the sensitive benefactor.

As she grows closer to womanhood (now played by Zhang Ziyi), confirming Hatsumomo's worst fears, her elder's enmity toward her takes the form of embarrassing her at every opportunity. Exploiting her youthful gullibility, she provokes Chiyo into marring a borrowed kimono from a nearby Geisha house run by Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), a stately woman who holds the record for the most money paid a Geisha. When Chiyo returns the dishonored garment, Mameha is outraged.

But, knowing the devious nature of Chiyo's role model, she puts the truth together and repays the favor by adopting Chiyo as her disciple in a deal with Mother. The graceful Geisha Mameha names her ward Sayuri and begins her training and her great destiny to top even her own value to the rich men who will offer their patronage. Her beauty grows into incandescence, the gracefulness of her dance mesmerizing, the quickness of her wit disarming.

There's a certain predictable quality in the storyline, but not in the emotionally charged nuances that keep you gripped in the exotic richness of its telling. Chiyo's progression through the stages of becoming the most highly sought Geisha, most highly paid for her virginity, renaming and tragically withheld realization of her longing is a bedazzlement of the senses. The Geisha culture and customs, not nearly as obvious or superficial as many assume, provide the core and foundation of the drama. The instructiveness of it in Golden's superb narrative is tranferred with faithful adherence and will explain much about Geisha values and realities, perhaps, even, to some Japanese. It did to at least one: my companion at the screening.

There are no subtitles, the Japanese and Chinese players speak English both with and without accents. In some cases, the diction is slow and methodical, revealing a somewhat less comfort level with the English language, but I never saw it as a compromise in the impression of the culture of this period.

The Geisha narrator in Arthur Golden's novel goes into great length about the quality and meaning of the kimonos a geisha wears and that there's nothing accidental or assumed about the rich taste and craftsmanship that go into their design and rare fabric. In a leading geisha house, the cost of these garments are a big slice of the budget pie. They are a mark of the status of their clientele and of the geisha. The attention to this detail in the movie beatifully depicts the tradition with exquisite, if unstated, examples.

Ziyi, as much a dancer as an actress ("The House of Flying Daggers"), doesn't depend merely on stunning beauty. She more than capably conveys the passions of a girl trapped in an alien world, meeting its challenges, and conquering it with as much internal accomplishment as external. Watanabe is handsomely stalwart, providing a presence of genuine quality and ethical sacrifice. If you want the image of incorruptible righteousness, Watanabe is your man. Yeoh creates a lady of so fine a disposition and understanding, it could be called a bravura performance. And Li pulls off villainy to mask vulnerability with great style and subtlety.

All considered, I'll go on record to predict this as a major contender for Best Picture come Oscar time.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack Album

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Poorly written
I've seen the movie and disagree with the review
Site rating: 2

Complete outrage that non-Japanese are cast in main roles. The movie is completely unauthentic. No, this movie will NOT teach anything "even to the Japanese." What a foolish statement by Mr. Gaijin Reviewer.

                                                           ~~ semitantta 
[Ed. note: The statement came from my Japanese companion's remark after seeing the film. Obviously, she's not the purist Mr semitantta is. But, purists should recognize that the use of world reknowned stars like Zhang Ziyi and Li Gong broaden the scope of appreciation for a story that is so Japanese. We understand that there is a debate about this, particularly in Japan and Mr. semitantta's reaction exemplifies it. We'd like all our readers to join in, but the only comments that will appear here will be those that include your name and email address for authenticity.]

Well written
This review will influence me to recommend this reviewer
Site rating: 6

I really, really wanted to like Memoirs of a Geisha. Really, I did. And I couldn't figure out why I wanted it to end so badly. Now I think I've got it: many of the characters are difficult to understand, and most of the movie is dark as can be (and I though Flatliners won the award for Poor Lighting). When it was light enough to see, it was a very pretty movie - but just that. It was fluffy. I never ended up caring about a single character - matter of fact, when Sayuri was standing on the cliff with the Chairman's handkerchief, I hoped that she'd jump, just so the bloody film would end.

                                                           ~~ Mary H. 
Well written
This review will influence me to recommend this reviewer
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review
Site rating: 9

The movie is a feast for the eyes, heart and spirit. It reaffirms my faith in humanity.

                                                           ~~ Bill D. 
I am 22 years old and I live in San Diego, California. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam and spent my first 5 years of life in Vietnam, then I came to the US. I am ethnically Chinese. On, the rating for Memoirs of a Geisha is a very low 31%. The rating for Lost in Translation is a very high 95%. I don't get why such a mediocre, boring film like Lost in Translation got such critical acclaim while most critics are panning Memoirs of a Geisha.
                                                           ~~ Vince C. 
Very well written
This review will influence me to read more by this reviewer
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review
Site rating: 9

Overall, this is a seriously underrated film that packed more of a punch than most of this year's Oscar contenders.

                                                           ~~ David 
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review
Site rating: 10

I LOVED THIS MOVIE -- it was amazing to see what these girls had to go through to be as beautiful as they were wether u would call them art or prostitutes, they are amazing.

                                                           ~~ kati 

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