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MovieHype00645 – MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

{Oscars for Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design; Nominated for Original Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing}

I saw MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA a few days before the Oscars. I noted it had six nominations—a lot, the directing/producing team behind the Multi-Oscar winning CHICAGO, and two of my favorite actresses; Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh (of CROUCHING TIGER fame); not to mention Ken Watanabe from THE LAST SAMURAI.

I guess the real question was why this movie with such an impressive pedigree—from those in front of the camera and behind, coming from such an acclaimed book, not to mention the heart-breaking themes that Oscar seems to love—wouldn’t be nominated for Best Picture?

Now having seen the film I can say it deserves every nomination and win it got and more so. (I would have considered nominating Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh.) However, I think it is the Adaptation from the book that kept MEMOIRS at #21 on my list of Best Movies of the Year rather than in the top 3.

The film is broken into three distinct parts. First is young Chiyo (played later by Zhang); an explanation of how she came to be in the Geisha world. We’ve all seen epics that begin with the childhood of the main character. It usually lasts about 7-10 minutes. This lasted almost 42. Don’t get me wrong; it’s fascinating. How this girl’s life happens will tear at you, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. However, when your main actors don’t show up for 42 minutes you’re in trouble, and while the foreshadowing/explanation of this girl’s life, troubles and motivations was riveting, you could sense they were trying to get too much of the book in.

Then, with about 40 minutes left in the 145 minute film, the focus abruptly shifts once more. Again, I was completely enveloped in the world I was watching, and the huge swing felt inorganic and out of place. In a book about a girl’s life I could see it (presumably there’d be even more details covering the gaps), but here I felt kind of jerked around. A movie script is kind of like referees in a basketball game; if they do their job right, you don’t notice them. That the structure of the film was so apparent was distracting.

But that’s pretty much the only thing that didn’t work. It’s a big thing, enough to keep MEMOIRS out of the Big Show, but the film itself is a feast of beauty; the locations, the sets, the costumes, the customs, the people and even the way of life.

Before this film I knew next to nothing about geishas. I assumed them to be Japanese prostitutes. This, I found out, couldn’t be further from the truth. (For more information, check out Wikipedia’s informative article on Geishas.)

Hyperion’s Rating System

Suspension of Disbelief: In theory, this is what life was really like for Japanese women prior to WWII. I reality, I’m not so sure. I say at least 4 out of 10 on how much you need to suspend your disbelief.

Genre Grade: Historical Epic or a window to the Orient? The movie doesn’t compare to a CROUCHING TIGER or LAST EMPEROR, but I would say it’s far more like a BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Let’s call MEMOIRS a Bittersweet Historical Romance, and by that standard, B.

Sex/Violence? I tell you the truth, if they’d put sex and nudity in, this would be a Best Picture nominee for sure. So much build up, so little pay off. There is one shocking scene when a Madam checks to see if her Geisha has had sex with a boyfriend, but other than that not much a young teen would be traumatized by. But I can’t imagine young people not being bored. A person needs to have lived awhile to learn this much heartbreak.

Kickassability? There is some, when we see our young heroine learn to be a geisha. Some cool scenes there, so I’ll say 20 out of 100.

Pantheon Percentile: Is this film better than most films out there? Yes. Better than most epics? No. I can’t see too much of a market beyond western women who dream of a different life than the one they got stuck with…80.

In short, the very word Geisha means “person of the arts,” and the girls are expected to be able to sing, dance, play instruments, talk lively and with great wit on a host of subjects all while dressed in outfits that would frighten Elizabethan women and with more make up than a PTL service.

Oh yeah, and they’re supposed to be subservient to men at all times.

Actually, the more you think about it, the more like a cultural prostitute they really are.

The geisha’s life turns out to be amazingly complicated. Her motivations and actions not determined by a simple set of stimuli, but traveling beyond what most Western women even dream of.

At the same time, the movie never examined exactly why this whole elaborate production had flowered the way it did, and I had the distinct feeling I was I was not watching what actually happened. (This doesn’t bear on the movie proper, but I was completely unsurprised to learn the novel was written by an American man. Couple that with the movie being directed by an American man, and one wonders if we might not get a completely different story if told by a Japanese woman.)

Of course, I’m not one to say that only black people can direct black stories, women about women’s and so forth, but I do think we got much more of a fantasy than reality. (For that matter, most of the actresses are clearly Chinese, and while most Westerners may not be able to tell the difference, it does smack of lazy casting. I mean, why not go head and cast Italians or Mexicans then, if you’re not going to have Japanese women? But I digress.)

If it is a fantasy, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is sure a beautiful one. There is an ethereal almost haunting quality that stretches from frame to frame. I just can’t help but wonder if it couldn’t have been so much more.


Fitèna said...

I did mention that i watched the making of this movie, haven't I? Anyway, I had the same perception about Geishas till I listened to Ziyi Zhang and got totally confused. They're not des prostitués de luxe (high class prostitutes?). They don't become Geishas because they're compelled to, no its actually very highly regarded to be a Geisha and not everybody can become a Geisha.
Subservient? I'd say they just become whatever the men wishes them to be. More like actresses. I think its sort of manipulative actually. They're beautiful, cunning women. I was surprised to learn that Geishas were are are run by women. Which might mean something!


Hyperion said...

Fitena - After seeing the movie, I agree they are not prostitutes, although they sometimes sell their body, especially "first rights," so it's more complicated than it would seem. My only concern is that the book was written by an American man, so one wonders how much of a fantasy it is. Oh, and I earlier apologized for not being able to do the aceent aigu, and I just realized it's an accent grave, so I apologize again.