Despite the general grousing of some older movie patrons that Hollywood just doesn’t make ‘em like they used to, the last few years have marked several major accomplishments in big screen entertainment.
Since 2000, audiences have witnessed the rise of the fantasy genre to glorious new heights (The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter), the creation of animated films that live up to their claim of amusing the whole family (The Incredibles, Shrek), and the reinvention of grandly staged musicals (Chicago, Moulin Rouge).
But what 21st century cinema has not managed to achieve is an epic love story on scale with Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, or even Titanic.
Memoirs of a Geisha seemed poised to finally fill that void.
Spanning decades of longing, deceit, loss, and rivalry, not to mention a world war, the story follows Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), a 1920s Japanese peasant girl whose family sells her and her sister to big city entrepreneurs.
Thanks to a pair of stunning cerulean peepers, Chiyo escapes her sister’s fate of being bonded to a squalid, low-rent brothel. Instead, she is bought by the owner of an okiya, or geisha house, where she works at manual tasks until her training as a gentlemen’s companion begins. As Chiyo’s mentor explains during lessons on dance, poise, and polite conversation, true geishas sell their company, not their bodies. But as the film goes on, the distinction between Chiyo and her sister’s vocations becomes harder and harder to draw.
Though only nine when she arrives at her okiya, Chiyo’s shining blue eyes create an immediate enemy of Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the house’s highest earner, who sees in them future competition for admirers. Like an evil step-sister, Hatsumomo lies, jeers, and schemes to make the girl’s early years as difficult and degrading as possible.
Of course, for every evil step sister, there is also a handsome prince. In this story, a geisha house patron known as “the Chairman” (Ken Wanatabe) fills the bill. After he offers Chiyo the only kindness she experiences before womanhood (spying her crying on a bridge, he buys her a sweet treat), she determines to become the kind of geisha who could win his heart.
Aiding her in this quest is the Chaiman’s current consort, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), who uses Chiyo (now played by Ziyi Zhang) to keep Hatsumomo from assuming control of the geisha house and, thus, all of their lives.
Megan Basham is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide To Having It All
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