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Spurning Japanese 

A review of Memoirs of a Geisha (PG-13)

click to enlarge Of love and obis: Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) and The Chairman - (Ken Watanabe).
  • Of love and obis: Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) and The Chairman (Ken Watanabe).

Memoirs of a Geisha (PG-13)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

To the astonishment of absolutely no one who pays attention to the things people can get infuriated about, the film adaptation of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha has inspired controversy. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) cast "name" actors of Chinese descent as Japanese characters in three of the film's key female roles, leading to cries of protest from both Chinese and Japanese observers.

I'm guessing, however, that these protesters will not recognize how the casting controversy is part of a larger issue with Marshall's adaptation. Golden's novel -- perhaps even to a fault -- focused on the day-to-day minutiae that made the world of geishas so uniquely compelling. But the film hones in on the romance and power struggles that make for bigger, more dramatic cinema. It's not just the actresses that lack a distinctively Japanese flavor; it's the film as a whole.

And yet Marshall still manages to craft a visually spectacular epic, beginning with the prologue set in the fishing village where 9-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister essentially are sold into indentured servitude by their father in early 1930s Japan. They're spirited away to Gion, a geisha district near Kyoto, and delivered separately to "okiya," or geisha-houses. As young Chiyo learns, it's not the same as a brothel -- experienced geisha, like her house's imperious Hatsumomo (Gong Li), are respected companions and performers with no sexual obligations. But Chiyo's chances for becoming a geisha seem slim, until, as a teenager renamed Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), she is taken under the wing of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and taught the ancient art.

Or at least, that's the impression I get. Marshall does devote one key montage sequence to Sayuri's apprenticeship, an efficient piece of filmmaking that conveys many of the skills required of a top geisha. But ultimately it's a sliver of the story, and screenwriters Robin Swicord and Doug Wright have too many other points to hit. There's the rivalry between Hatsumomo and Sayuri, Sayuri's adoration-from-afar of a kindly man known only as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a bidding war for Sayuri's virginity, and the impact of World War II on the geishas' lifestyle.

Most of the conflicts feel Westernized for our protection -- the clashes between Hatsumomo and Sayuri sacrifice gamesmanship for claws-out chick warfare, and Sayuri's rise is presented less as a triumph over overwhelming odds than the inevitable success of an ambitious go-getter. The romantic tension between Sayuri and The Chairman becomes just the most glaring example of a tale that becomes less and less about its particular time and place.

And yet, for all its flaws, Memoirs of a Geisha still often is transfixing. The colors in John Myhre's production design are bold and arresting, as are the spectacular kimonos created by Colleen Atwood. The same knack for impressive staging that Marshall brought to Chicago makes Memoirs too visually interesting to be tedious.

Ultimately, though, the story Marshall is directing could just as easily have been set in the native lands of its non-Japanese stars. Frightened perhaps of making a movie that was "too Japanese," Marshall and company have made something lovely but indistinct: Memoirs of an Ambitious Orphan Living Somewhere in the 20th Century.

-- Scott Renshaw

  • A review of Memoirs of a Geisha (PG-13)

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