Movie Review: Memoirs of a Geisha
Topic: Film & TV
Movies whose screenplays are adaptations of well-loved books usually suffer in comparison to their source material. I'll admit I'm guilty of making the comparison in this reviewit's hard not to, when the book is one of my all-time favorites.
Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of Chiyo, a young girl from a poor coastal town who is sold to an okiya, or geisha house. Her blue-gray eyes set her apart from the other potential geisha, and Chiyo finds herself under fire from the okiya's beautiful but jealous and cruel breadwinner, the geisha Hatsumomo.
After trying to reunite with her sister, who was also sold away but to a house in the seedier "pleasure district," Chiyo slumps on a bridge and cries. A handsome man stops to comfort her, notes her unique eyes, and gives her his monogrammed handkerchief to wipe her tears. He then buys her a treat and goes on his way. This first kindness stays with Chiyo, who longs to find the identity of the man, and thinks of him as a way out of this life she did not choose for herself. She dreams of him in terms of lovean emotion which is not part of the complex calculations of a geisha's life.
It's important to note here that geisha are not prostitutes. They are artists and entertainers, highly trained and intellectual, who serve as companions to a clientele of wealthy and powerful men. A geisha is also a commodity in the particular economy of that place and time, with prices for her entertainment set by her skill and experience. Her virginity is also offered at a price. And a geisha may become a mistress to one of her clients, at some point; this is an important possibility, for it may free her from her okiya and secure her financial future in a way she can never achieve alone. But this decision is not up to the geisha; the man must make the offer to her, and it may not have anything at all to do with loveyet the geisha may be required by circumstances to accept.
There is also a hierarchy within an okiya, with its breadwinner taking pride of place unless the "mother" of the house chooses to "adopt" one of the young geisha and groom her as the next owner. This threat is part of the tension between Chiyo, Hatsumomo, and Hatsumomo's protegé Pumpkin.
Back to the story: Chiyo is taken under the wing of Hatsumomo's rival Mameha, and trained as her protegé in the arts and practices of a geisha. When Chiyo finally becomes a full-fledged geisha, she is given the name Sayuri. Soon she is the most sought-after companion in the teahouses, and the most celebrated dancer at the festivals.
The man from the bridge appears again, of coursehe's the well-known Chairman of a large corporation. The story becomes complicated as Sayuri tries to become closer to the Chairman through her own actions, which often come into conflict with the negotiations being made on her behalf by Mameha, the owners of the okiya, and various men about townincluding the Chairman's closest friend and business partner. They also have to contend with the outbreak of World War II.
There is so much detail in the "business" dealings swirling around Sayurithe cost of her tutelage, the price of her virginity, whether she will be adopted by the okiya, whose mistress she will become, etc.that the film has to stick to a long and carefully defined set of plot points. Because of this requirement, it moves very quickly from one point to the next, and seems almost rushed at times.
But the way in which the movie suffers most in comparison to the book is this: if you hadn't read the book, then I don't think this movie would give you any idea what it really takes to become a geishahow hard it is, or how long it takes, or how many skills they have. In the book, we learned that the world of the geisha is one of exquisite beauty that is very practiced and planned. I wish the movie had slowed down long enough to show us a few long shots of a tea ceremony, a shamisen lesson, or the tying of a kimono's obi. It's so vital for the geisha to learn and perform their rituals perfectly that I wanted to see a few minutes of that talent. There was one wonderful dance scene; I wanted more of that kind of thing. And the challenge of achieving that success provides some of the tension to the story, but was missing from the movie's portrayal. Would I be bothered by this if I hadn't read the book? Probably not; it's the unfulfilled potential that I lament.
Oh, but it looks great! Beautiful colors and textures abound. Focus pulls are used to masterful effect, and the sets and props look like the mental pictures I got from reading the detailed descriptions in the book. The acting performances are all good, but Zhang Ziyi (the curious and somewhat naive Sayuri), Michelle Yeoh (the wonderfully elegant Mameha), and Gong Li (the supremely evil Hatsumomo) shine. I think this film benefits from the fact that its director, Rob Marshall, has a background in choreography, as beautiful movement is important in a geisha's entertainment. I enjoyed the music by John Williams (I never would have guessed it was him! It's not very John Williams-y, thank God), which included cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma and violin solos by Itzhak Perlman.
So, I liked this movie. But people, read the book. It's so worth it.
(And a private note to the people who sat on my left: SHUT IT. You do not need to provide a running commentary during the movie. Jerks.)
Memoirs of a Geisha:
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