|Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
Starring: Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Koji Yukusho, Youki Kudoh
Director: Rob Marshall
It’s taken nearly a decade to bring Arthur Golden’s celebrated novel to the big screen, but it was well worth the wait. Directorial changes (Steven Spielberg was originally set to direct before Rob Marshall stepped in) and international controversy over the casting of Chinese actors in lead roles were the first of many obstacles to stand in the way of a problem-free production. The decision to hire an all-Asian cast, and then to have them speak in English with Japanese accents, might have been the final nail in the coffin, if it weren’t for the reported on-set catfights between the film’s three women stars. And yet, despite the trials and tribulations that Marshall was forced to weather, the film came out intact and in pure award-winning form; except that, “Memoirs of a Geisha” was snubbed at the Golden Globes, and rightfully so. Despite solid performances, epic storytelling and extravagant production design, “Memoirs” only delivers a good love story, when it should have been great.
The story begins when a humble fisherman sells his two daughters to the Madame of a Kyoto geisha house, but when only Chiyo (Suzuka Ohog) – the younger of the two - passes “the test,” the sisters are split up. Chiyo stays to train as a geisha, while her sister is pawned off to work as a prostitute in the Pleasure District. At first, Chiyo finds little to benefit from becoming a geisha (“a moving piece of art”), but after meeting a kind man (Ken Watanabe) who spends his time in the company of the highly-respected women, Chiyo wants nothing more than to become a famous geisha, with the hope of meeting him once again. Her plans are temporarily ruined, though, when a rival geisha of the same house, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), frames her for the destruction of a prized kimono.
Several years later, Chiyo has grown into a beautiful young woman (Zhang Ziyi), but instead of continuing her training, she has been relegated to the house slave, an act that has her working day and night to pay back her childhood debts. But when a distinguished geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), takes her under her wing, Chiyo is given a new name (Sayuri) and transformed into the most famous geisha of the entire city. Her introduction into high society offers Chiyo the chance to once again meet her secret crush, but is forbidden by the geisha rule to ever love a single person.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” is very much like Cinderella in Japan. There’s the role of the beautiful servant girl, in which Ziyi is absolutely captivating; the gentle prince, a role that Watanabe nearly steals the show once again with; and the evil stepsister, which is played perfectly by Li, whose eyes are like sharp knives every time she glances at Chiyo. The onscreen hatred between the two actresses (Li and Ziyi) probably goes a little deeper than the film as well, since Ziyi has unofficially stolen the role of the poster girl for celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou, the former husband of then up-and-comer Li.
Other notable performances include Yeoh, though her role is much smaller than the other two actresses, and Koji Yukusho, who plays Watanabe’s business partner and best friend, Nobu. And yet, while all of the performances are certainly worthy of a little Oscar love, the production design is clearly the best part of “Geisha.” Absolutely breathtaking in execution, it’s no wonder why Marshall is so admired in the movie-musical world. The still-novice director has taken everything he knew about stage production, and everything he learned while shooting “Chicago,” to create a beautiful world in which the story can blossom. It’s rare to see a narrative so dependent on its environment, because without it, the film would not have succeeded in making the audience believe. “Memoirs of a Geisha” still isn’t the type of epic love story that will last for ages, like “Gone With the Wind,” “Titanic,” or even “Brokeback Mountain,” but it’s a worthy addition for any fan of the genre.
The two-disc special edition DVD of "Memoirs of a Geisha" is a grand release that includes eleven production featurettes - including "Geisha Bootcamp," "The Music of 'Memoirs'," and "The Way of the Sumo" - as well as two audio commentaries featuring director Rob Marshall and various crew members.