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.
As a meditation on feminine beauty and its power across cultural lines, Geisha draws us in and enchants us as much as the titular women enchant the gentlemen they entertain. We can’t help but be fascinated as the dirty urchin from a fishing village transforms into the embodiment of womanly grace and allure.
But celebration of superficialities, no matter how spectacular, isn’t enough to sustain sweeping romance. And there isn’t much going on behind the kimonos and white makeup to help us identify with the characters’ joys and pains.
Chiyo’s lifelong devotion to the Chairman stretches the limits of realism. Though they have little initial interaction, she never waivers in her affection, even when time and circumstance conspire to take her away from him for years at a time. It is as though the machinations of Chiyo to attain the object of her desire are only tacked on to give the girl something to do while we watch her.
Chiyo may scream, “I want a life that is mine,” but the sentiment comes off like mere histrionics once she demonstrates that she’s only too willing to sell that life if the right man’s buying.
Similarly, the Chairman’s motivations are a total mystery—does he really fall in love with the pretty nine-year-old and arrange to have an older geisha train her in the ancient art so that he can some day possess her or does he merely think he’s doing a sad little girl a kindness and fall in love with her later? These unanswered questions are crucial in determining whether we long for Chiyo to have her man or whether we think he’s a disturbing, but patient, creep.
The stunning sets, costumes, and cinematography act like the best ring mountings, setting the cast off to breathtaking advantage, yet director Rob Marshall (Chicago) expends little effort helping us understand why these jewels are valuable beyond their beauty.
At best, Yeoh, Ling, and Zhang’s impressive acting hints that there is more to these women than we are being presented with. At worst the geishas come off like the lazy, shallow, self-involved tarts that today might happily sell their innocence for a chance to live in the Playboy mansion.
Like the geishas themselves, the film presents a pretty picture. But it’s one far too forgettable once our time with them is through.