Famous film reviewer, Roger Ebert, once said that he suspected that the more you know about Japan and movies, the less you will enjoy Memoirs of a Geisha. I can see his point of view given the fact that controversy over the casting of Chinese actors in lead roles were the first of many obstacles to stand in the way of a trouble-free production. The decision to hire an all Asian cast, and then to have them speak in English with Japanese accents, might have been the final nail in the coffin.
This film, based on the novel by Arthur Golden, unfolds from the perspective of Chiyo (played by Ziyi Zhang), a girl who, at the age of nine, is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto in the early 1930’s. Here she learns that becoming a geisha can be the single path to wealth and independence for a woman.
Memoirs of a Geisha is very much like Cinderella in Japan. She becomes the most celebrated performer in the land, enchanting the Chairman, his business partner, and countless men besides, eventually selling her virginity in an elaborate ritual that claims a record price. Like many big budgeted films, there is an overabundance of story and a deficit of characterization. In Geisha, the filmmakers have the daunting task of cramming a 500 page novel into a two and a half hour film. Even with huge cuts to the novel’s story, there is still nowhere near enough time to allow subtext to take root. The first casualty, as often is the case in adapted novels, are the characters.
Those minor nit-picks aside, Memoirs is absolutely breathtaking in execution, it’s no wonder why Marshall is so admired in the movie-musical world. The director has taken everything he knew about stage production to create a beautiful world in which the story can blossom. It’s rare to see a narrative so dependent on its environment, because without it, the film would not have succeeded in making the audience believe. This gets a slot on my blog for the sheer fact that it is a decent love story with exceptional visuals that you can demo on your HDTV on Blu-Ray [which is on sale for $14.99 at the time of this review]. It’s worth a look and it comes Slightly Recommended.