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Saturday, November 26, 2005


ModFab On...Memoirs of a Geisha

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe, Youki Kudoh, and Suzuka Ohgo

Written by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright
Directed by Rob Marshall
PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content

That old saw known as "missed opportunity" rears its ugly head often in Rob Marshall's vapidly gorgeous adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha, no doubt to the sad disappointment of cineastes and fans of Arthur Golden's popular novel. When one looks at the film's promising elements -- the creative team of the Oscar-winning Chicago, five of Asia's most talented stars, a bestselling source that lavished engrossing detail upon a secret world -- it is hard to imagine how a film version could not add up to something remarkable.

Imagine it. Instead of delicately revealing the inner sanctum of Japan's traditionalist heart, GEISHA wades clumsily through a series of beautiful sets, hackneyed plots and stunning costumes...devoid almost entirely of context. Golden's book luxuriated in social minutiae: the intracacies of wearing a kimono, the complexity of a geisha's makeup, even the fragility of the cherry blossoms. These details made the literary Memoirs a slice of delicious escapism. In Marshall's pulsating vision, however, there's little time for such detail. At a jaunty clip, we follow the story of Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) from homeless orphan to lovestruck teen to abused servant to famed geisha...a rags-to-riches tale that, stripped of its cultural idiosyncracy, covers little ground that hasn't been covered before.

With arguably the strongest cast of performers assembled in any film this year, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA squanders its talent on a dismayingly sub-par screenplay by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright, a patter-heavy mess that favors the crude and the obvious. As the protagonist Chiyo, Zhang (House of Flying Daggers) gives an overwrought performance, lacking any originality to carry her to greatness. Youki Kudoh (Snow Falling on Cedars) seems to have "clumsy geisha" stamped on her forehead; as the frumpy geisha Pumpkin (get it? get it?), she stands in the film's shadows until her unbelievable turn in the film's final act. Similarly, the legendary Gong Li (Raise The Red Lantern) has been assigned the High Empress Bitch role in MEMOIRS; as the vengeful, brutal geisha Hatsumomo, she is certainly imperious and mean, but without any honest sense of danger...Cruella de Ville in a kimono. The film's best moments belong to Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies) as Mahema, the elegantly determined force of nature that trains Chiyo in the ways of Japan's beautiful ladies.

Attempting to squeeze from the screenplay every single moment of melodrama possible, Marshall slavishly follows the bittersweet love story between Chiyo and The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) to its cloying end. His obsession with this dull-as-dishwater thread occludes far more interesting elements of the story: the inherent misogyny and classism of geisha culture, the physicalization of effeminacy and seduction, or the use of costume and dress to communicate emotional values. Like Hollywood's last Asia-appropriation-epic The Last Samurai, the film is mildly entertaining to a degree; but in the end, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is a merely a pretty picture...an unremarkable travel postcard that lacks sophistication, weight, and grace.

© 2005 Modern Fabulousity


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