"Memoirs of a Geisha" has been marketed as an illustrious, aesthetically beautiful end-of-the-year epic, a motion picture in which the "Oscar bait" title was written for. Bless collaborating studios Sony and Dreamworks for fooling themselves into believing the finished product actually had a chance at that, because the movie that ultimately ended up in theaters is almost as empty and bland as so-called serious dramas can get. Directed by Rob Marshall (2002's "Chicago
"), whose work signals that he might not be fully prepared for the Hollywood big time, the film has attracted a lot of criticism for its casting of largely Chinese and Malaysian performers in Japanese roles. Not only that, but Chinese and Malaysian actors portraying a strictly Japanese experience while speaking entirely in English. Some might claim racism for the former, and the latter is just a predictably flimsy attempt at Westernizing the story and making it accessible for American audiences. Still, these controversies are the least of the problems with "Memoirs of a Geisha."
Without bothering to tell his audience what year it is (thank goodness for press notes1929) or set up any kind of historical backdrop for the story to follow, director Rob Marshall wastes no time jumping into the thick of things. In an impoverished fishing-village, kid sisters Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and Satsu (Samantha Futerman) are ripped from their families and homes, and then broken apart themselves when Chiyo is sold to a Kyoto geisha house. Lorded over by Mother (Kaori Momoi), Auntie (Tsai Chin) and the vindictive Hatsumomo (Gong Li), Chiyo has no choice but to live out the rest of her childhood as a virtual slave.
Once grown into adulthood, Chiyo is soon training to become a geisha herself with the mentorship of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), a rival of Hatsumomo's. As Chiyo, who now goes by the geisha name of Sayuri, experiences firsthand a pressing new career and lifestyle that demands a range of social and artistic skills, she soon comes to realize she wants more out of her life than what others have chosen for her to be and do. As Hatsumomo tells her, thus shattering Sayuri longtime way of thinking, "We don't become geisha to pursue our own destinies. We become geisha because we have no choice."
That line of dialogue from Michelle Yeoh's (2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") Hatsumomo is as deep as "Memoirs of a Geisha" ever goes during its 145 minutes. Despite approaching the two-and-a-half-hour mark, the film lacks substance, rooting interest and depth, three necessities for a big-budget prestige picture that has been set up as a sweeping historical drama. Fault can be attributed to all the major behind-the-scenes participantsthe talented actors can be discounted since they do what they can (not much) to make their parts seem less nondescript and creatively limitingbut blame must start with the screenwriters. In adapting the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden, whose bright idea was it to hire Robin Swicord (of the awful 1998 witch comedy, "Practical Magic
") and first-timer Doug Wright to pen the script? If what ended up on the screen was accurate to what was on the page, then Swicord and Wright's work is haphazard, with undistinguished supporting characters dropping in and out of the story at random, scenes clanking together rather than smoothly transitioning, and a central premise about the life of a 1930s/'40s geisha so watered-down and superficial in its depiction that the movie might as well have been about a performing arts gardener who goes out on the occasional date.
Of the cast members, only three stand out. Ziyi Zhang (2001's "Rush Hour 2
"), as Sayuri, does a heartfelt and believable job in her first English-speaking lead role. As the younger version of Sayuri, Suzuka Ohgo is a dead ringer for Zhang and has a naturalistic charisma that makes the opening half hour as good as the film ever gets. Finally, Youki Kudoh (1999's similar, far superior "Snow Falling on Cedars
") is effective as Pumpkin, another potential geisha protege who blames Sayuri for eventually being left out in the cold world to fend for herself. The closest thing to a love interest for Sayuri is Chairman, forgettably played by Ken Watanabe (2003's "The Last Samurai
"). A brief passing acquaintance from her childhood who made a deep lasting imprint on her life, Sayuri reunites with Chairman as an adult with both parties knowing who the other is but neither courageous enough to fess up to this knowledge. The romance between these two is too slight to be more than an afterthought.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" is a sparkler to look atthe images come alive through the technical work of cinematographer Dion Beebe (2004's "Collateral
") and art directors Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. (2005's "The Weather Man
") and Tomas Voth (2001's "Ali
")but an inert, jumbled mess from a narrative standpoint. More lugubrious and sleep-inducing than emotionally intoxicating, the film struggles to find meaning in the life of Sayuri when, judging from what is on screen, there isn't any. Adding insult to injury, the incredibly pat conclusion follows the old adage that "all you need is love," which all the more denigrates Sayuri's willful claims throughout that she wants "a life that is mine." Misguided in the extreme as it takes a whole lot of lazy shortcuts in presenting its story, a more fitting title for "Memoirs of a Geisha" would have been "Cliffs Notes of a Geisha."