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Where EAST meets the Northwest

COSTUME DRAMA. Ziyi Zhang stars in the sweeping romantic epic Memoirs of a Geisha, now playing at area theaters. Based on Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel, the film has drawn criticism for casting Chinese actors in Japanese roles. (Photo/David James, S.M.P.S.P.)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #1 (January 3, 2006), page 1 and 15.

Desperate Geishas

Memoirs of a Geisha

Directed by Rob Marshall

Produced by Douglas Wick and Steven Spielberg

Distributed by Sony Pictures

Now playing at area theaters

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

It’s hard to imagine a greater conjunction of Eastern and Western cinematic superpowers than Memoirs of a Geisha, Sony Pictures’ latest foray into trans-Pacific blockbusters. Assisted by Steven Spielberg, director Rob Marshall (Chicago) interprets American Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel about the dramatic life of a fictional geisha, featuring some of the leading figures in Asian cinema. Although controversial among some Japanese, who object to Chinese actresses portraying their beloved cultural icons, the film itself succeeds as a melding of Eastern traditions and aesthetics with Western sensationalistic savvy and cinematic skill and should be a smash hit on both sides of the Pacific.

The story follows the young Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) as she is sold into servitude, faces hardships and rivalries, and finally emerges as the country’s most famous geisha, Nitta Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang). After their destitute father sells Chiyo and her sister to two different okiya (geisha houses), the girls become geishas-in-training. Chiyo is instantly noticed for her striking blue eyes, indicative both of her water nature and the film’s Western influences. Hatsumomu (Gong Li), the leading geisha at Chiyo’s okiya, also notices the blue-eyed girl’s promise and works to undermine her potential rival. After her training is stopped due to Hatsumomu’s maneuverings, the kindness of the powerful Chairman (Ken Watanabe) inspires Chiyo to defy Hatsumomu and become a geisha.

Soon, the famous geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) takes Chiyo under her wing, promising Mother Nitta (Kaori Monoi) that Chiyo will pay back her considerable expenses within six months of her debut, a nearly impossible feat. This sets up the primary conflict of the movie, as Mameha and Sayuri (Chiyo’s new geisha name) struggle against the conniving Hatsumomu to earn money and respectability. But Sayuri also wants to make the beloved Chairman her patron (danna), in spite of Mameha’s warnings that geisha are not permitted such emotional freedoms.

Both Ohgo and Zhang skillfully portray the hidden strengths and tender vulnerabilities of Sayuri, while Yeoh and Li revel in their opposing roles of mentor and saboteur; Monoi is especially memorable as the fierce, gravel-voiced head of the Nitta okiya. Zhang and Yeoh build upon the impressive film résumés (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; 2046) that have made them familiar, if not revered, onscreen presences in the West. Exhibiting the same melding of past and present that made Chicago so successful, Marshall creates scenes that are framed like the small compartments of a lacquered box, simultaneously intimate and majestic. Watanabe and Koji Yakusho (as the Chairman’s friend and business partner Nobu) also give winning performances, but their roles are peripheral in the women’s world of geisha.

For all its focus on the world of women, Memoirs could hardly be called a feminist film. The central conflict comes to a head during the auction of Sayuri’s virginity, a ritual that’s no less demeaning, especially after Sayuri is forced into a situation compromising her maidenhead. And the love story between Sayuri and The Chairman begins when Sayuri (then Chiyo) is nine years old, making Lolita seem positively ancient. Moments like these may awaken Western audiences to the vast cultural differences lurking behind the gorgeous, fashionable presentation.

This restrictive viewpoint, wound as tightly as a geisha’s obi around the life of these artists and entertainers, becomes the film’s defining characteristic. World events enter mostly via overheard radio broadcasts, and even the massive upheaval of World War II is addressed only inasmuch as it forever alters (if not destroys) the geisha culture. Memoirs of a Geisha derives its action and tension from the geisha’s social scheming, whether the conflict between Hatsumomu and Mameha or Sayuri’s attempts to reveal and fulfill her hidden love for The Chairman.

These social conflicts, with geisha squabbling over patrons and spreading nasty bits of gossip about one another, is reminiscent of "Desperate Housewives," the hit TV show featuring the petty machinations of American women. Of course, comparing Memoirs to "Desperate Housewives’ is a bit like comparing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to "Walker, Texas Ranger," but it does point to the film’s essential nature. Behind the beautiful dances, haunting music, and spectacular outfits, Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of love thwarted, lost, or gained, set amid a pack of squabbling, backstabbing women. In a sense, it’s a spectacular two-hour catfight among some of Asian cinema’s brightest stars, the ultimate fusion of Eastern traditions and artistry with Western fascinations with social drama and voyeuristic glimpses into hidden lives.

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