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May 13, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 13, 2006 |

“A story like mine should never be told,” intones the solemn narrator at the beginning of Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha, and frankly it’s hard to argue. Marshall struck improbable gold a couple years ago with his feature adaptation of the stage musical Chicago, starring a weathered Renee Zellweger, an aging Catherine Zeta-Jones, and a surprisingly spry Richard Gere. As lawyer Billy Flynn, Gere sang the song that best summed up the success and appeal of the film: “Give ‘em the old razzle-dazzle, and they’ll never catch wise.” Taking the same stylistic approach to filmmaking that the Weinsteins took to advertising the movie, Marshall created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Just act like the film is great, and audiences will follow suit. And Chicago, for all its highlights, wound up being touted as the second coming of movie musicals, despite being inferior in just about every aspect to 2001’s Moulin Rouge. Say anything enough times, and you’ll start to believe it.

It’s this inherent sense of inflated self-worth that permeates Memoirs of a Geisha, Marshall’s follow-up and a fairly depressing, uninvolving tale of pre-World War II Japan, complete with child slavery, forced prostitution, and the total subjugation of women within the rigid confines of strict caste system. The film’s been bouncing around Hollywood since the publication of Arthur Golden’s novel of the same name in 1997; Steven Spielberg was once attached to direct and serves as executive producer. The geisha in the story take an odd pride in the fact that they’re “better” than the street prostitutes, since they offer a touch of class and companionship along with their bodies. Ultimately, the geisha aspire to be transparent, transient beings, useful only for pouring tea for their clients or laughing at their awkward jokes. They call themselves artists, but this seems as arbitrary a line as the distinction between “dancer” and “stripper.”

Sold into indentured servitude to a madam at age 9, Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is separated from her sister and forced to wait on Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a superficial and mean-spirited geisha who will become an enemy to Chiyo later for no real reason other than, well, she needs an enemy. After being beaten with reeds for a few years, Chiyo is taken under the wing of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), a famous geisha who received the highest bid on record for her virginity during the auction process that transforms a girl from dominated geisha in training to officially paid geisha as prostitute. At 15, Chiyo is rechristened Sayuri and played by Ziyi Zhang. Sayuri is determined to become a geisha to capture the attention of the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), one of the affluent geisha’s many affluent clients.

The biggest drawback to having Chinese actors playing Japanese roles in an English-speaking film is, perhaps not surprisingly, the stilted dialogue and interactions. Instead of the dramatic flow afforded by a foreign film performed in its own language, like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, to name two random examples, Marshall’s actors are inhibited by the inherent limits of the language barrier. The cast does what they can to overcome this, though, and they mostly succeed, especially the watchable young Ohgo. Watanabe also does well, though his casting in the film seems obligatory. Since his American film breakthrough in The Last Samurai in 2003, Watanabe has become the go-to Asian actor for Hollywood, the Japanese version of Jean Reno, who’s been America’s standby French actor for years. In fact, the cast has pretty much every semi-recognizable Asian actor from the last 20 years of American film. Mako? Check. The guy that played Shang Tsung? Double check. The John Williams score even features cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma, as if Marshall wanted to pad even the offscreen roles with as many notable Asian names as possible.

“Celebrate this moment,” Mameha tells Sayuri when her virginity receives a record-setting bid. And, sadly, Sayuri does. She’s one step closer to her goal of becoming a true geisha: a woman with no mind or face or desires of her own. This is about the point in the story where I finally gave up the losing battle I’d been fighting in a vain attempt to find something in the film worth watching. I actually stayed involved through the sequence where Sayuri attempts to woo bidders into clamoring for her soon-to-be-auctioned untouched body. There’s even, I kid you not, a training montage where Sayuri brushes up on her skills, like fan twirling and demure giggling. But after she gets a high bid, and this is viewed as a kind of triumph, I checked out. From then on, I just admired the beautiful exterior shots, pretending that the California gardens were actually Japanese countryside. Who knows, maybe Ralph Macchio will show up with one of those two-sided mini-drums and try and fight someone to the death. Hey, it’s worth hoping for.

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.

Memoirs of a Geisha / Daniel Carlson

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