January 5, 2006

Movie Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

I have not read the book. After seeing the film, my interest in the book has been piqued, although I cannot say if or when I will ever read it. That said, I plan on seeing this movie again, probably when the DVD arrives. It is a well acted, beautiful to look at glimpse into another world.

Over the years I have had a growing affection for Asian cinema. My induction into movie-aholics anonymous was a relatively recent event. As I started to watch more and more films, I wanted to branch out and sample the output of the world at large. My affinity for action films drew me to the kung fu flicks coming from Asia, featuring stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. As I saw how they could cross the line from chop-socky into classic pieces of dramatic cinema, not to mention the freaky horror films and just plain bizarre stylings of the likes of Takashi Miike. From there I moved on to other genres, primarily other action films, and dramas, making a point to move away from the martial arts. A whole new world was opening before me. Filmmaking took on a whole different attitude, not to mention seeing a new culture.

What does that have to do with Memoirs of a Geisha? Well, this is a look into an area in which I know nothing about. Of course, I had heard of geishas, but this gives a look into what that really is. That leads me to another question that I had, it is with regards to the authenticity of the events. The novel was written by an American, and the director is American, I wonder if that puts a damper on the authenticity of the characters and events. I guess I should give some thoughts on the film and plot.

The story follows Chiyo, a young girl sold to a geisha house. We watch her as she struggles under the cruelty of Hatsumomo, one of the top geishas, and her fascination with another. We follow her as she first has thoughts of escape, but they are quickly dashed, as are her initial attempts at learning the geisha life. A chance meeting, a fleeting kindness, sets her life on another course, determined to become a master of the geisha arts in order to once again draw nearer to the giver of said kindness. At this point we are thrust into her envelopment in the geisha lifestyle. We jump ahead in time and are greeted with an older Chiyo, renamed as Sayuri in her new life. Each step of her development is tracked as she flirts with her goal, never able to attain it. I do not wish to say anymore, as it would be best to see it as the film unfolds.

At the center of the film are a trio of wonderful actresses. The first that we get introduced to is Gong Li, who plays the cruel Hatsumomo. She really sinks her teeth into the role and chews up the scenery. Next we have Michelle Yeoh, as Mameha, a kindly rival geisha who takes Chiyo under her wing. Completing the trio is Zhang Ziyi as the beautiful and enchanting blue-eyed Sayuri. I found Zhang to be absolutely captivating as the films center. As well as these three women did in these roles, their casting is a little odd, as they are all Chinese,while the story and characters are distinctly Japanese. I was able to put that aside as I was drawn into to the story. Another notable cast member is Ken Watanabe as the Chairmen, and the object of Chiyo's desires. He was seen earlier this year as R'as al Ghoul in Batman Begins.

Steven Spielberg helped bring this to the screen, serving as producer. At one point, he was attached as director, but those duties eventually fell to Rob Marshall. Marshall last directed the Oscar winning Chicago. Marshall brings a gorgeous visual style to the story. Although, at first I thought that he was trying to make every shot stylish, rather than trying to serve the story. But as we moved further into the story I found the angles and moves to add to the exotic look of the film. As much as Marshall contributed, I think that Dion Beebe should share in the accolades as the cinematographer. For a bit of trivia, much of the film was shot just outside of Los Angeles, on a set that was constructed to look like the geisha district of Gion in the 1920s and 1930s.

One last notable ingredient is the score from John Williams. It is one of my favorite scores from recent memory. The performance includes solos from cellist Yo Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman. Simply beautiful music.

Bottomline. I was drawn in by sumptuous beauty of the film, engrossed in the story, and mesmerized by Zhang Ziyi. I found myself loving this movie.

Highly Recommended.


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