Memoirs of a Geisha

2006-10-02 13:49


The story begins in 1929 in Japan when nine-year-old Chiyo is sold as a servant to a geisha house by her father. After years of mistreatment she enters training as a geisha (now renamed Sayuri) when she realises it is her only chance of ever seeing a stranger who showed her kindness again. She soon becomes the most celebrated geisha in the district, and meets her stranger - the Chairman - again. Unfortunately, the Chairman's best friend falls for Sayuri, meaning neither of them can declare their love. Will Sayuri break the geisha rules or accept the half love-life that tradition demands?


There's a reason so many of the best films are based on short stories, and not on novels: it's really hard to condense the complexity of a novel (the many characters, the character development that takes place over years and years, and huge historical events) into a two hour movie without sacrificing something.

Memoirs of a Geisha was a moving, addictive read that had the magic of the books everyone - even the kids who didn't like to read - read at school. Like a literary Enid Blyton mystery or a Harry Potter book, you looked forward to curling up with it, even though it was an upsetting story that jerked your emotions around and sometimes left readers in tears.

The movie, on the other hand, doesn't ever reach out and grab you by the heart. Instead it hovers politely at your elbow, flaunting its pretty perfection. A pity really. The story is all about how love conquers even the gorgeous tradition of geishadom - how it is more important than anything. But while you're watching this prettier-than-thou, epic-shaped Hollywood antique fashion show it's hard not to wish they sold more popcorn inside the cinema. And maybe books and reading lamps too.

It's not too clear just how or why Memoirs ended up being less than memorable. Some detractors say it's because it's "inauthentic".

Inauthentic, because none of the lead roles are played by Japanese actresses and actors - they're mostly Chinese or Korean stars, with Japanese extras providing a dash of local colour. (Trivia: Chinese censors banned the film because Chinese actresses play Japanese geisha, claiming the storyline was "too sensitive"). Nobody really seems to know why Japanese actresses couldn't be hired. But frankly, it doesn't matter unless you're a bit of a racist. Is Renee Zellweger really British? Is Juliette Binoche is really Afrikaans? Is Leon Schuster really a black woman? I don't care, any more than I care whether my sushi chef is Japanese or Kazakhstani, as long as the sushi is good.

The film set was actually located in San Francisco, not Tokyo, Japan. The patterns of the fabric are bigger than they would have been - because this looks better on film. The actors all speak English. This, they say, is inauthentic.

Inauthentic? It's only a movie! Based on novel! Was Lord of the Rings shot in Middle Earth? No, and nobody dares call it "inauthentic" for fear of being beaten to death by crazed librarians.

The real problem with Memoirs actually lies right at the top, with the director himself. Directors get all the credit due when things go well. In this case, Rob Marshall has given this movie the Rob Marshall touch of death. Like his previous big project, Chicago (2002), Memoirs looks like it should be good, but is actually about as tasty and exciting as a genetically modified vegetable. To make things worse, John Williams, doing what he does best, washes all the personality out of the emotional moments with his usual cheese sauce soundtrack.

The Hollywood gloss, good-looking actrons and the novel's classic storyline make this very watchable (if a little long winded). But it's like Grandma would have said: "The book is much better, dear."

- Jean Barker

This period piece is like a miniseries without the ad breaks. It's ably propped up by award-winning costumes, arty lighting, and gorgeous actresses. Luckily, looks count for a lot in Hollywood.

Michael 2006/05/04 11:11 AM
South African Ladies Why can South African Ladies not look and BE faminine as Japanese Ladies? The local ones all look and behave like Butch with their either too fat or dried out like Biltong figures.SA Ladies should go to Japan and look and learn.
sipho 2006/05/04 3:32 PM
try making a real movie with real people i like real women not walking skeletone
Jean 2006/05/04 3:40 PM
Come on, boys This is a movie review, not an FHM survey or a Sexiest Woman Alive poll. For you? It's censored.
Georgina 2006/05/08 5:25 PM
Retards When SA men start using the brains between their ears (it is F-E-M-I-N-I-N-E Michael not faminine. Faminine sounds like a weight-loss technique) as well as looking after themselves and not smelling like they have been at a twelve hour rock-concert, they might have more luck.
emanuel lemme 2006/05/11 10:38 AM
oh my word! fantastic darlings, fantastic, just so lovely too view, what do you think of all those gorgeous background shots.i nearly fell inluv with that geisha myself, just kidding darlings, just kidding.
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