Having not read Arthur Golden’s book “Memoirs of a Geisha” I can’t say first hand whether it is more entertaining than this film, but I can assume my imagination would have done far more with this world than Rob Marshall did, which is a major surprise considering what he did with Chicago. Memoirs of a Geisha has the unfortunate feel of a studio project all the way and when the opportunity to shine arises, Zhang Ziyi isn’t even tested, and this is an actress with some serious talent.
Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a young Japanese girl who is taken from her family and begins her training to become a bonafide geisha. Unfortunately, the world of a geisha is filled with more competition than you would ever imagine and after some serious missteps and finger pointing she finds herself no longer pursuing the life of a gifted geisha, rather as a maid in the geisha house she was living.
Luckily for her, a couple of accidental meetings and generosity soon earn her the chance to become a geisha once again as the legendary Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) takes her under her wing. Heated rivalries burn hot and the threat of war all begin to play a part in this sweeping epic as the world of the Japanese geisha is presented in a light that shines as well as darkens the mysterious and fascinating world of the geisha. You will watch as this little girl becomes Sayuri, the most sought after geisha in Japan, and soon learns what exactly it means to be the most wanted geisha in the land.
What Memoirs of a Geisha has going for it is an international cast that owns the screen at every opportunity, and while Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi are phenomenal at their craft the only actor that truly is given the opportunity to shine is Gong Li and boy does she ever.
If there is any reason at all to see Memoirs of a Geisha Li’s performance would be that reason. There is so much menace and beauty in her performance that you are simply captivated every moment she is on screen. Li has a smile that could melt any man and a stare that could freeze them just the same. Coming up she plays a villainous role in Miami Vice and I am counting the minutes until I get to see her again.
As for the rest of the cast they simply seem to just be there. Michelle Yeoh is given moderate opportunities to strut her stuff but Watanabe is wasted for the most part. What truly is a shame, however, is how Rob Marshall was able to light up the world with Chicago, but with Memoirs he has a hard time lighting a candle.
Granted there is a seedy side to the geisha lifestyle, but it is a lifestyle built on extravagance and beauty, at least when you have these lovely ladies perform, let them perform and let that performance be a masterpiece. Instead of going full tilt when it came to the geisha performances in Memoirs it seems Marshall wanted to keep it very matter-of-fact. Just as a beautiful dance performed by Ziyi as Sayuri gets going it is over before you know it. While the setting was pretty, those who loved Chicago know that Marshall has a lot more in his box of tricks than he is giving us.
If I was to make one overall suggestion for this movie before it had gone into production I would have requested an all Japanese cast and make sure all the spoken dialogue was Japanese. The problem with making a picture such as this at a major studio is that they need to appeal to the widest audience. How many moviegoers are going to see a 2 hour and 20 minute movie that is entirely in Japanese when they could go see Harry Potter again. It is unfortunate, but I think we all know Potter would win that battle.
I wish this had been made at an independent studio where it could have been given the treatment it needed. This is not to say Rob Marshall was not the man for the job and I think I have already proven that I think Ziyi, Yeoh, Watanabe and Li are very capable actors, but an authentic cast would have made this picture ten times better and far more believable.
For the most part Geisha is a satisfactory movie that does begin to wear with its 2 hour and 20 minute run time. Those who loved the book may or may not be impressed, I am not sure, but I do think the trailer makes this one out to be far better than it actually is, and it is a shame. I really wanted to take this one in and love it.