Movie Reviews by Ania Kalinowska & Henri Roe
Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Koji Yakusho, Gong Li
Director: Rob Marshall
Review by Ania Kalinowska
There are two things that by now you must know about MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA.
The first is the predictable plague perverting films aplenty: the bog of highly unnecessary controversy. It’s a common phenomenon, with most productions’ PR-machines using it to their advantage. The argument here is chiefly about the main characters – of Chinese and Malay descent – portraying not only Japanese women but, more importantly, their ancient customs and way of life. It doesn’t help that the project was originally written, and is now brought to the screen, by Americans, in English, apparently somewhat inaccurately. At any rate, there have been enough complaints to kick up a serious stink, but this aspect alone should in no way prejudice anybody to either see the movie or discourage them from checking it out.
Secondly, a topic that needs no debate. It’s a really beautiful film. Adorned in pleasing aesthetic, everything from the cinematography to the set design gives off a rich flavour and an almost-touchable texture. We’re talking Oscar material kind of texture.
The world turns kimono and cherry blossom as the doors open to 1920s Japan, a setting in which an impoverished young girl grows up to be the most renowned Geisha of her time. The life of a Geisha is but a tough effort, it takes strict discipline to learn the arts she performs, and she may not love any man. There is, supposedly, no hanky panky either (although her virginity is auctioned off at one point!). To make things worse, the competition is fiercer than that between hyenas fighting over a rotting corpse. I guess East is like West; nothing is ever easy.
Superficially, the story is intact and presented in that already-mentioned beauty. The performances are great – the main actresses might be coincidental box office goddesses recognised in the West, but although not Japanese, they do the job well enough. The whole thing is an experience. But one which has something faintly familiar about it…
Rob Marshall (CHICAGO) has made a ‘foreign’ film showcasing a unique culture into something very much American. The fact that it’s pretty to look at but is questionable in the substance and truth departments brings it down heavily. This only makes it more palatable for those who need a crash course to traditional Japanese society. The sad bit is that it looks as though the people behind this movie considered everything in terms of money. Bringing an Eastern film to a Western audience needs some kind of incentive after all, so no amount was spared when it came to extravagance. Extravagance, however, doesn’t guarantee eloquence – the kind of eloquence that formal Japanese or even Asian movies in general have a fluid abundance of.
And so it suffers a bit critically, because beneath the costumes and gestures, there is little differentiating it from any normal romantic/period Hollywood piece that you can see whenever the need arises.
Now I can’t tell you whether the real-life cultural references within it are inaccurate since I am not Japanese, and wasn’t alive in the 1920s to witness such things for myself, but what I can tell you, is that irrespective of all this, it is a very special, enjoyable film. The gloriously decorative aspects of the flick forgive any raping and distorting that Marshall might have conducted upon Geisha culture.
Review by Henri Roe
A small fishing village dwelling stands alone in the raining night and two men talk as two small girls watch from a corner. Next there is a confusing rush of imagery as the two girls are torn from this home in the middle of the night and sold to a geisha house in the beautifully portrayed Kyoto’s Gion district. You see it all through the terrified eyes of the smallest child and the confusion only adds to you experiencing her fear.
This is the perfect beginning for a wonderfully intriguing story. Set in pre-World War II Japan the film follows the life of this small child from the moment she is torn from her poor family, through the spiteful treatment of the owner of the geisha house and the head geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), as she flowers into the most famous geisha Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang).
Based on the best selling novel ‘Memoirs Of A Geisha’ by Arthur Golden, the film portrays the book’s brutality and spine chilling insight to life as a geisha and captures the tenseness and shock, which is felt through the acting and camerawork.
The stunning camera work with the striking use of colour and imagery sets this film above the rest. World War II is just running water turning into running blood and then into bright red silk.
Zhang plays her part beautifully, showing strength and wit without loosing the naïve child within. The only thing is that Zhang isn’t 15 and therefore Sayuri’s experiences in becoming a geisha aren’t quite as frightening as they could have be. Watanabe is more than convincing as the dashing unrequited love interest of Sayuri.
Another small problem with this film is that even though it’s set in Japan, the main actors (Zhang and Li) are Chinese and you never think that they are Japanese.
Overall though this is an amazing film not to be missed, I would urge you to go and see it.