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Memoirs of a Geisha

Beautiful yet Empty

The long awaited cinematic adaptation of Arthur Golden's moving 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha has finally arrived. Unfortunately the movie has to follow in the footsteps of a much-read book that clocks in at 448 pages. Which is something almost impossible to compete with and come out on top. Memoirs of a Geisha the movie tries the best it can but still falls somewhat flat.

The story tells the tale of a young girl, with astonishingly blue eyes (played as a child by Suzuka Ohgo and as an adult by Ziyi Zhang), who is taken from her remote fishing village and sold by her aging parents into an okiya (geisha house). There she works as a maid for the strict Mother (Kaori Momoi in a scene-stealing role) and is continuously harassed by the head geisha, the vindictive, bitter and manipulative Hatsumomo (Gong Li looking more beautiful than ever here), until she is taken under the wing of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) who becomes her mentor and brings her into the world of geisha where she is re-named Sayuri.

Cattiness abounds in the okiya with Hatsumomo trying to thwart Sayuri's success at every turn, including ruining her childhood friendship with Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), who is now her rival for clients. As Sayuri navigates the world of geisha and works towards establishing herself, she also secretly pines for The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), whom she desperately wants to take on as her danna (a patron with benefits). But, as she soon learns, as a geisha, her life is no longer in her own hands.

The whole geisha world is a bit exotified, which can't really be helped too much as the film's major characters inhabit an alluring and ancient subculture; however, during certain scene sequences, particularly when Sayuri is gong through her training, this fascination with the "other" increases. Moreover, the fact can't be overlooked that 90% of the principal actors in this film are Chinese. While, I'm sure the producers cast those actors who were simply best for the role, I can't help the sneaking suspicion that lines like "Ah! No one'll be able to tell!" and "Chinese, Japanese, same difference!" were thrown about production meetings. It needs to be said: not all Asians look alike.

Where director Rob Marshall (Chicago) and his crew exceed are in the cinematography and set design. The world in which Sayuri lives is brought life. The camera takes it all in; no detail seems to have been left out. The black tiled roofs of Kyoto, the narrow winding streets, the beautifully arched bridges, the priceless kimonos and the flowering cherry blossom trees are all vivid elements that make the story richer.

Actress Ziyi Zhang had a difficult task. This was not only her first English-speaking role but she also had to speak with a Japanese accent. As it were, this is not her strongest role. While she does a satisfactory job in portraying Sayuri, she does not deliver an extraordinary performance. Indeed the narrator of who does Sayuri's voiceovers (Shizuko Hoshi) manages to portray more feeling than Sayuri in the flesh. Youki Kudoh as Pumpkin is excellent and brings a vulnerability to her role that Zhang misses.

While the book has a poetic depth to it, the film plays more like a Cinderella story than anything else. It lacks the same soul. And although it is quite visually beautiful, there is just something missing.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars