Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Kji Yakusho, Suzuka Ogho, Kaori Momoi

Directed by: Rob Marshall

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Ken Watanbe as the Chairman makes a big impression on Chiyo (Suzuka Ogho) in Memoirs of a Geisha

According to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, a geisha (literal translation: a person of the arts) is a skilled female entertainer, a dancer, artist, hostess and emphatically not a prostitute or concubine. However, even Wikipedia admits that the mystery surrounding the world of the geisha is a hard one to penetrate, and that many Japanese people don't really understand the culture, which leaves us clumsy foreigners without a hope. And Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha doesn't really do a lot to clear up the mystery.

Sold into an okiya (geisha house) at a very early age, little Chiyo doesn't really want to be a geisha. Dismissed by the 'mother' of the house as unsuitable geisha material and bullied mercilessly by glamorous queen bee Hatsumomo (gorgeous Maggie Chen lookalike Gong Li), all she can really think about is escaping. Yet a chance meeting with the kindly, noble Chairman (Ken Watanabe) makes her realise that becoming a geisha would gain her access to a rich, pampered world that, as a servant, she can only dream of.

And, like a fairy godmother in a kimono, the elegant Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), the city's most famous geisha, appears one day at the okiya to take her under her wing and transform her into the most celebrated geisha in the country. Next thing she knows, Chiyo (now renamed Sayuri and played by Crouching Tiger's Ziyi Zhang) is rubbing shoulders with none other than her beloved chairman - a shame then, that she must play court to his business partner and devoted friend, the rough and ready, battle scarred Nobu (Kôji Yakusho).

Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li in Memoirs of a Geisha

War intervenes (okay, some planes fly overhead), and with Nobu's help, Sayuri escapes to the countryside, where she trades her rich kimonos and platform shoes for a headscarf and smock. War ends (five minutes later) and Nobu returns to bring her home - yet things in the city have changed. Cheap tarts with white make up have brought the name of geisha into disrepute. Can Sayuri don her robes once more and find the self-respect and love she so deserves? Ah, well, that would be telling, now wouldn't it.?

Memoirs of a Geisha is an interesting film. It looks gorgeous (the costumes, settings and actresses are simply ravishing) and the performances by the three female leads are solid and convincing (Gong Li in particular is fantastic), even if it is a little odd that all three roles are taken by Chinese actresses. This casting has caused much controversy, with critics complaining that a film that deals with such an iconic Japanese tradition should surely have starred Japanese actresses. Deals with the tradition, yes, but I wouldn't say it does anything to demystify geisha culture.

Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) dances

Instead it offers a fascinating, if frustratingly oblique, glimpse into the shuttered, elegant, strangely sexless world of the geisha, where love and desire are sublimated into artistry, as women strive to turn themselves into perfect, passionless, performing dolls. Yet still waters run deep, and there's more to the geisha than powder and a parasol. (The theme of water recurs throughout the film, in fact: Sayuri is a creature of water, she is cool and clear, frequently prepared to go with the flow, yet also determined to make her own way, no matter what obstacles she confronts.) Behind the artifice lie pain and sacrifice, a theme summed up brilliantly when Sayuri makes her debut as a geisha: dancing on eight inch platforms, long back hair flying, she is both passionate and cold, desirable and captivating yet also terrifying, utterly alien and removed.

The film also captures to perfection the timeless nature of the geisha's trade. Behind the closed doors of the okiya, we're back in the 19th century, and it comes as rather a surprise when Sayuri steps out in full traditional regalia at a garden party, to find herself surrounded by chic, upper class women in 1930s frocks, who peer at her curiously, intrigued by this beautiful, delicate ornament from a bygone age.

Which, come to think of it, more or less sums up Memoirs of a Geisha: it's charming, beautiful and entertaining, but in the end, it's also rather artificial and superficial, piquing the curiosity yet never really moving the heart. We see the rivalry and bitchiness, the scheming and one-upmanship that goes on behind the closed doors of the okiya, when the make-up comes off and claws come out, but we rarely see beyond the mask and into the soul. Like a geisha, the film is skilful, artistic and lovely, but it's not a movie to give your heart to.

  • Share on Tumblr