Director Rob Marshall has wrapped us up a very special present with his follow-up to CHICAGO, the 2002 Best Picture winner, with MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. He took all the time he needed to pick just the right box and a multiple-patterned wrapping in brilliant colours before meticulously covering the box and tying a flawless bow around it. It shines like nothing we’ve seen. It’s a shame that upon opening this gift, we see that he forgot to put any thought into what to put in it to begin with, as tearing away this perfect packaging leads to nothing more than an empty box.
I have not read the highly successful novel this film is based on. And perhaps I am less in touch with my feminine side than I thought, as I do not understand what all these Geishas are complaining about. Sure, the story begins with a young Japanese girl sold to another household and separated from her sister and only remaining family. She lives the life of a slave but is inevitably given the chance of any girls’ lifetime, to become a Geisha (this is not “Memoirs of a Housekeeper” after all). A geisha, in case you’re not entirely familiar, is a moving work of art, a Japanese hostess trained in the art of culture, dance and music. She is not a prostitute or at least this is what we are told. Understandably, I was puzzled when a bidding war begins over our heroine’s virginity in order for her to pay off her debt to the household she grew up in and become a true Geisha.
Ziyi Zhang plays Sayuri, the most sought after Geisha in all the land. She holds her own in what is her first English speaking role but ultimately does not say very much and pales in comparison to Michelle Yeoh, who plays her mentor and brings some much needed spunk, confidence and authority to this fragile, whiny weeper. Perhaps speaking English is the problem itself. Let alone that a large number of Chinese actresses play Japanese parts, this film would have been more effective if it was actually in Japanese. It makes no sense that these women would be speaking to each other in broken English all the time. The struggles to enunciate lead to emotions not being conveyed. The self-imposed communication barrier never allows the viewer to be taken in by this beautiful existence as the beauty comes across as contrived, designed for the North-American box office, and not made for artistic purposes. In hope they’re not too disappointed come Oscar time when the only nominations they get are technical ones.
If you’re into art, then MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA will narrowly carry you along throughout a rich, colorful journey. As for me, I will let Mr. Marshall keep his pretty box to re-use next time on the condition he promises to put something of substance inside it.