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Review of “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) PG-13 145min

January 16th, 2008 by Maxim · No Comments · 6,651 Views

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Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)It’s interesting that Steven Spielberg was the executive producer of this movie. I didn’t read the book, but I interviewed some people who did and they said that the movie is mostly faithful to the 1997 best-selling novel, with just a few scenes dropped from the book for the sake of making film short enough.

The plot: in 1929 9-year old Chiyo and her sister, who lived in an impoverished fishing village, are sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district. There Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo, later Ziyi Zhang – American audience knows Ziyi Zhang mostly for her roles in “House Of Flying Daggers“, “Rush Hour 2“, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero“) is harshly treated by the owner, woman known as Mother (Kaori Momoi), and picked to be trained to become geisha (courtesan), while her elder sister was turned away. A beautiful but spoiled and arrogant geisha Hastumomo was giving Chiyo hard time, promising to help her find her sister in exchange for being her slave. Hastumomo has a weakness for men, however, which pushes her in relationships inappropriate for a geisha. After Chiyo spots her in the arms on a man who sneaked into their okiya, Mother berates Hatsumomo with “Do you think a geisha is free to love? Never!”. The real inspiration for Chiyo to become geisha was when she accidentally met the a businessman known as Chairman (Ken Watanabe – remember him from “The Last Samurai”, “Letters From Iwo Jima” or “Batman Begins”?). In her desire to be closer to him, young Chiyo eventually became the most revered geisha/diva in Japan with the help of another geisha Mameha (beautiful Michelle Yeoh), a direct competitor of Mother and Hatsumomo.

The summary: This is basically a Cinderella tale set in Japan before, during and shortly after the War. The first 40 minutes of the movie when the girls were sold and Chiyo ended up under harsh treatment of the Mother felt too artificial, but they were required to set up the rest of the story. The most interesting part of the movie is when Chiyo goes through the learning process and enters the competitive war with Hastumomo and another apprentice girl named Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) from her okiya where everything goes. The pacing of the movie is the same throughout more then two hours of the movie – much calmer then previous work of director Rob Marshall – Chicago. Dazzling costumes.

The good: Beautifully shot, very colorful. Good acting (could be better), particularly by the girl who played young Chiyo, Suzuka Ohgo. Musical score by John Williams really complements the visuals. Excellent costume design. The story is nicely put in time perspective in the first half of the movie when only radio broadcasts inform the viewer about beginning of the World War II, while life in Kyoto geisha house continues as usual. A lot of attention to details.

The bad: the mixed Asian cast is speaking English with their own accents. The three celebrated pre-war geisha are played by Chinese actors: Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li. It would be nice if either Japanese actors were cats in the movie, or if it was made in Japanese like “The Battle for Iwo Jima”. The clarification for whether or not geisha are prostitutes was designed for the Western audience. The boundaries that stop geisha from free love are not clear and were not explained enough. From the movie apparently the geisha were bound to their owner until they pay off their debts. The story drags on for more then two hours and feels rather empty. It’s supposed to be “geisha may never love” theme, but it doesn’t quite come through.

The credits: Director – Rob Marshall | Screenplay writer – Robin Swicord | Book – Arthur Golden | Producers – Steven Spielberg, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Bobby Cohen, John DeLuca, Lucy Fisher, Patricia Fitcher, Douglas Wick | Musical score – John Williams | Cinematography – Dion Beebe | Editing – Pietro Scalia

Sayuri – Ziyi Zhang
The Chairman – Ken Watanabe
Mameha – Michelle Yeoh
Nobu – Koji Yakusho
Pumpkin – Youki Kudoh
Mother – Kaori Momoi
Auntie – Tsai Chin
The Baron – Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Chiyo – Suzuka Ohgo
Hatsumomo – Gong Li
Dr. Crab – Randall Duk Kim
Sakamoto – Mako
The General – Kenneth Tsang
Mr. Bekku – Thomas Ikeda
Young Pumpkin – Zoe Weizenbaum
Sayuri Narrator – Shizuko Hoshi

The film won 3 Oscars.

The special edition DVD has two disks: disk 1 contains the feature film with two audio commentary tracks, one with director Rob Marshall and co-producer/choreographer John DeLuca, and the other with costume designer Colleen Atwood, production designer John Myhre and editor Pietro Scalia. Atwood and Myhre won Oscars for their work. The second disk contains featurettes: “Sayuri’s Journey: From the Novel to the Screen”, “The Road to Japan”, “Geisha Bootcamp”, “Building the Hanamachi”, “The Look of a Geisha”, “The Music of Memoirs“, “A Geisha’s Dance”, “The World of the Geisha”, “The Way of the Sumo”, “Director Rob Marshall’s Story”, “A Day With Chef Nobu Matsuhisa”, “Chef Nobu’s Recipes”, “Behind-the-Scenes Photos” and “Costume Illustrations”.

Also available in Blu-Ray. Sony Pictures.

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Tags: DVD · Drama · Epics/Historical · Movies · Romance · USA

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