Memoirs of a Geisha
directed by Rob Marshall
(Sony, 2005)

With so many filmmakers producing films these days, it's a rare joy to sit and watch a work of actual cinematic artistry. Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautiful film in almost every way -- the vibrant cinematography, the music (featuring a score by John Williams and solos by both Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma) and of course the mysterious geisha at the heart of this story.

One can easily understand why many, especially the Japanese, were less than thrilled by the casting of Chinese actresses in the film's prominent roles (especially since the Chinese and Japanese were at war during the era in which this story takes place), but I don't think anyone can complain about the women's performances. Gong Li portrays the vindictive Hatsumomo to a tee, even revealing the vulnerability that helped make her the wicked woman she was. Michelle Yeoh brings grace and beauty to the part of Mameha, the woman who made it possible for the main character to escape a life of virtual slavery and become the geisha she longed to be. For me, though, it's really all about Ziyi Zhang, a young actress whose beauty and talent have never failed to mesmerize me. She was absolutely enchanting in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of the Flying Daggers, and this film allowed me to see her in a completely dramatic light. I must also add that Zhang had some pretty big shoes to fill, as Suzuka Ohgo was absolutely fabulous as Chiyo, the girl who would grow up to be one of the most celebrated geishas in the land.

I think most Westerners associate geisha with prostitutes, owing mainly to the reality of Japanese girls calling themselves geisha as they sold themselves to American soldiers after the war. The whole concept of geisha is quite foreign to most of us in the West -- Memoirs of a Geisha reveals a small part of that exotic world to us, but I would be the first to admit I still know next to nothing about the geisha lifestyle. As this film makes clear, though, they were not prostitutes at all -- the geisha were and are entertainers skilled in such things as singing and dancing. Their art was their life, as they were not permitted to truly live their own lives -- they could not even consider love or marriage and remain a geisha, leaving many of them to lead secret lives of unhappiness beneath the gaiety that was their trademark.

The film follows the life of Sakamoto Chiyo from childhood through World War II and beyond. Even as her mother lay dying, she and her sister were sold, Chiyo going to a geisha house and her sister to a brothel. Robbed of family and friends, Chiyo was soon stripped of her dignity as well, as the jealous machinations of Hatsumomo (Gong Li) lead to her becoming little more than a slave. In the midst of her misery, she meets a most kind man on the streets, a man known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), and commits herself to somehow becoming a geisha and meeting the Chairman again. This love she feels for the only person to show her any real kindness only grows over time. Fate finally smiles upon her when Mameha (Yeoh), a famous geisha from a rival house, takes her under her wing as part of an elaborate plan to deny Hatsumomo the power and influence she yearns for. Not only does Mamaha transform Chiyo almost overnight, she grooms her into the most famous geisha in that part of Japan. Even with her dream fulfilled, however, Chiyo -- now known as Sayuri -- does not know happiness. While she has found a place near the Chairman, she is compelled to give most of her attention to his friend Nobu, and her only real friend is now lost to her. Then comes the Japanese defeat at the hands of the Americans, seemingly ending Sayuri's geisha days forever. Fate eventually grants her one more chance: to don the kimono and to win the love traditionally denied the geisha.

I think Memoirs of a Geisha is an exquisite film immersed in all forms of beauty. This is, when all is said and done, a love story that etches itself permanently into your memory. Admittedly, my fondness and admiration for Ziyi Zhang probably made the story more appealing that it would have been otherwise, but Zhang is such an expressive and talented actress, how can you not immerse yourself in the suffering she endures? All of the inner tumult that lies underneath the makeup and fancy clothes is most tellingly revealed in the dance she performs as part of what could be called her debut. Her graceful movements soon give way to a wild yet artful desperation that I can hardly describe. It is the creepiest (and most fascinating) dance I have ever seen -- and it's only one of many gorgeous scenes in this exotic, undeniably poignant human drama.

by Daniel Jolley
9 September 2006

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