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Memoirs of a Geisha

After taking on Chicago, director Rob Marshall now sets his sights on Japan. The filmmaker tackles the best selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha (opening December 16 at AMC Mission Valley and La Jolla Theaters) about a young womans indoctrination into a secretive subculture of Japanese society.

Memoirs of a Geisha opens with a woman narrator looking back on her life and inviting us into her world. She begins her story as a young country girl living in a fishing village in Japan in 1929. Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), as she is known then, and her sister are soon sold to a geisha house so that their poverty stricken family will have money to survive. The two are separated once they arrive in the city of Kyoto. The older girl is forced into prostitution while the younger one is made a servant at a geisha house. Chiyo, who has the novelty of stunning blue eyes, immediately incurs the wrath and vindictive jealousy of Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the houses top geisha. But Chiyo is taken under the wing of Hatsumomo's rival, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). With Mameha's kind guidance, Chiyo becomes a geisha named Sayuri (and is now played by Zhang ZiYi). She learns all the artistic and social skills a geisha must master in order to manipulate men and in order to succeed and survive. As the years pass, Sayuri proves to be a tough and able to survive both the ruthless world of the geishas and World War II. But Sayuri is driven to succeed by her desire to find a kind businessman (Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai) who treated her to some sweets when she was young and feeling particularly low. Her whole life is spent in pursuit of his love, and nothing else matters.

Memoirs of a Geisha is a lovely film to look at, and thats about the nicest thing I can say about it. After having so many Asian films brought over to the U.S. and American filmmakers being exposed to so much information about Asia, youd think that Hollywood could produce a film that feels more authentic than this. Its as if Hollywood has learned nothing about Asia since the days of The World of Suzie Wong in 1960. Memoirs harkens back to old visions of Oriental exotica, providing a peek into a forbidden world. But it all feels posed and although we are invited into this world by an insider, it still feels like an outsiders perspective.

Then theres the question of casting. Why couldnt they find Japanese actresses for the main roles? Zhang ZiYi and Gong Li are both Mainland Chinese, and Michelle Yeoh is Malaysian. They are fine actresses but I think they were only cast because they have better name (read that as box office appeal) recognition than most contemporary Japanese actresses. (Gong Li was Zhang Yimous favorite actress in films such as Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad, while Zhang ZiYi rocked the box office in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero. Michelle Yeoh also starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and scored hits in Hong Kong action films.) Marshall can defend his choices by saying they were the best actresses for the roles, but the more honest answer is that he didnt have the imagination or the daring to look beyond a small pool of internationally well known stars. I know that actors should be able to play any part; its their job to transform themselves into whatever roles they are cast. Asian performers frequently and successfully work outside their native countries. But for a film like this that is so rooted in a particular culture, it would have just seemed smarter to cast Japanese actresses.

Next we come to the look of the film, which is all high gloss and fake. We always feel like we are on a set. Even the locations feel dressed like a studio sound stage. And beyond the surface look of the film, theres the problem of just not conveying enough convincing details. Recent films such as Japans Zatoichi captured a better sense of a geishas life in its brief scenes of a pair of siblings traveling as geishas, and revealing all the effort and practice that goes into what they do. Even an anime series such as Samurai Champloo captures more about the living conditions women faced in Japanese society in an episode about a wife sold into prostitution to pay for her husbands gambling debt. Hou Hsiao-Hsiens film Flowers of Shanghai, while not about geishas, was about the deeply competitive and cutthroat female world of brothels. It conveyed the rivalry, politicking, behind the scenes maneuvering and intrigue in precise and vivid detail, something Memoirs sorely lacks. Any of these other works provide a better glimpse into Asian culture than Marshalls big, bloated epic.

As he proved with Chicago, Marshall cant convey real emotions or a credible real world. He just wants to make pretty, brightly colored pictures, the kind that might grace a Kodak commercial. When Zhang performs a dance to entice customers to bid on her, the performance looks like something out of a bad Broadway musical. It feels completely anachronistic and pulls you out of the film completely.

Memoirs of a Geisha (rated PG-13) is a big, sloppy, romantic melodrama that feels dated in the way it approaches the exotic world of Japanese geishas.