Sunday, October 3, 2010

Despite A Bad First Experience, Memoirs Of A Geisha Is Worth A Second Look!

The Good: Good acting, Interesting characters, Wonderful cinematography
The Bad: Pacing is deadly dull, Few characters are made truly distinct.
The Basics: A visually wonderful, very slow film, Memoirs Of A Geisha is worth watching.

My wife is a big fan of Memoirs Of A Geisha and the first time we sat down to watch it together, I fell asleep. I mention that at the outset as an instant explanation of why I am not rating the movie as high as many others. If I fall asleep in a film, it is not a good sign because I tend to sit through just about anything and stay awake. That said, we recently gave it another shot and I not only stayed awake, I found myself quite engaged by it, even though it was incredibly depressing in parts and I wasn't in the mood for that type of movie at the time.

The reason for the second viewing was simple. While watching Inception (click here for my review!) with my wife, she kept noting that actor Ken Watanbe looked remarkably familiar. He has a great role in Inception as well as a decent role in Memoirs Of A Geisha, so she was eager to see him in the more familiar role afterward. Memoirs Of A Geisha is based upon a novel by the same name and it is worth noting that I have never read the novel, so this is a very pure review of just the film.

Early in the 20th Century in Japan, two young girls are sold by their parents, who die shortly thereafter. Chiyo is separated from her sister and settles into a funk. She is abused by the lead geisha in the house, Hatsumomo, who is happy to sneak around with her boyfriend in a most un-geishalike fashion. Chiyo grows up, but in the process exacts revenge upon Mameha (Hatsumomo’s rival) by destroying her prized kimono. Chiyo encounters the Chairman as a girl, which causes her to develop a strong enough crush to make her want to become a geisha herself.

Mameha, returning to the geisha house as an adult, decides to make a wager with the debts Chiyo has run up and vows to make her the most successful geisha in history. As she begins to learn the ways of the geisha, she develops the poise, confidence and grace to try to attract the Chairman, but becomes waylaid by the politics surrounding the geishas and the outset of World War II, which prompts Sayuri (as she is known at that point) to flee for her life.

Memoirs Of A Geisha is a beautiful film, but it is dreadfully slow in parts. Things that might otherwise seem confusing, like Chiyo/Sayuri’s name changes are not hard to follow so long as one is awake, but the outset of the movie is incredibly depressing. The film is an atypical hero story, which has a heroine who starts at one of the lowest places possible and works hard to get the protagonist out of the situations she is thrown in without her consent. The pleasant aspect of the character development is that by seeing Chiyo start at the bottom with no discernible skills or abilities, the viewer wants to root for her, even if they are not thrilled about how she goes about doing it.

Memoirs Of A Geisha is very much a cultural piece and those in the United States might not always understand the cultural differences which make a hero out of a woman who sells her services and her body. The film works very hard to declare that Sayuri is not a prostitute, but this fact becomes confusing when geishas like her sell their virginity to the highest bidder. The geisha here is a high priced escort whose virtue is not for sale or use after the first time, apparently.

The film has a very strong middle as Sayuri works to become a master geisha, turning the heads of men she passes. In that section, Sayuri becomes immensely likable and the antics of Hatsumomo become quickly tiresome. The viewer wants to see Sayuri succeed, in no small part because of her unwillingness to be a competitor with one of the less-versed geishas, Pumpkin. Sayuri illustrates her kindness in an dog eat dog world and the character works. The movie runs into some problems, just as Sayuri does, in the latter portions of the film when she becomes active again during the reconstruction after World War II. In those parts of the movie, the relationship with the Chairman seems a lot more artificial than it ought to and even the performances between Ken Watanabe and Zhang Ziyi are a little more stiff. Ironically, it is at that moment that Youki Kudoh begins to be able to show her true range as an actress as she is able to play Pumpkin as drunk and very unreserved in wonderful contrast to her earlier performance.

The primary performers in the film are generally wonderful. Zhang Ziyi plays Chiyo/Sayuri with a wonderful human quality and strong façade alternately. She is able to be cool and collected one moment and in the next, she is crying and vulnerable and the ability to make such mood swings humanizes her character who might otherwise come across as cold and distant. Michelle Yeoh does a great job as Mameha. In fact, she is so good at altering her body language and expressions over the course of the film that one is more likely to be surprised to know she was played by the same actress throughout.

By contrast, Ken Watanbe’s task in the film is largely to keep his façade up the entire movie and he does that masterfully. Watanbe, who proves in Inception just how expressive he can be, is a master of the performance through the eyes. He says more with a glance and the flinch of a lip than most actors say with pages of dialogue and he makes the Chairman an appropriately authoritative character as a result.

On DVD, Memoirs Of A Geisha comes with a commentary track, a handful of deleted scenes and featurettes on the casting, adaptation of the book and cinematography. They are pretty much the standards for a drama such as this.

Ultimately, Memoirs Of A Geisha looks good, but one has to have a high tolerance for characters suffering to want to stick with it past the very painful beginning.

For other deep dramas, please check out my reviews of:
The Spitfire Grill
Strawberry And Chocolate
The Social Network


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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