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Overall Rating

Awesome: 18.06%
Worth A Look: 18.06%
Average: 23.61%
Pretty Bad38.89%
Total Crap: 1.39%

7 reviews, 30 user ratings

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Memoirs of a Geisha
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by Erik Childress

"Lo-Pan Would Have Loved This Broad"
2 stars

“There has never been a story such as mine told,” says narrator Sayuri Nitta. Oh really? That’s a pretty hefty opener that’s either going to be an attention-grabber or get called out for thinking too highly of oneself. I’m there to listen though knowing full well that, especially in film, anyone’s story can be fascinating if presented the right way. Arthur Golden’s respected 1997 novel took a few years to get to the screen, thanks to some on-again/off-again scheduling by one-time attaché Steven Spielberg. It’s now fallen into the hands of Rob Marshall in a sophomore effort after directing Chicago to a Best Picture Oscar in 2002. This story has all the earmarks for a repeat trip to the Oscars, an underdog tale with aspirations of unrequited romance, a production-lush time period with a dash of wartime drama and a cultural enrichment that voters love to fawn over. Except the only viable feeling its going to instill in Western audiences is acute boredom.

Sayuri’s “original” story begins as a nine-year old sold into slavery by her father. She is separated from her sister and forced into a childhood dictated by rules that will lead her into the life of a geisha. Curiosity gets the best of her too often and she runs afoul of Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a Bette Davisesque diva who gives her harsh warnings to stay out of her room and rats her out for punishment at will. Denied repeated opportunities to escape and reunite with her sibling, the young Sayuri meets The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) who buys her a Sno-Cone and she ends up with a crush.

She then dedicates her life to learning the art of the geisha, unaware of the many hardships that lay ahead. Well, mainly just one. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, which is understandable considering the film has taken its sweet, uninvolving time (40 mins) getting to its second act. Befriended by Memeha (Michelle Yeoh), the older Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi) goes through fan training and the art of how to stand-up in hopes of someday once again attracting the attention of The Chairman. Maybe he’ll be amongst the bidders for the geisha’s ultimate rite of passage – the auctioning off of her womanhood.

Now, many people may be under the mistaken impression that geisha is to whore as “sweet ice” is to Sno-Cone. I actually knew what a Geisha was at the age of five, thanks to a Clue-like game of 20 questions called “WhoAmI?” and its more synonymous with “artist” the way dancer is to stripper. Jesting though I may be, you can fancy it up all you want with euphemisms and beat its lifestyle as an honorable one to women who simply have no choice in the matter, but somewhere within the lexicon of geisha ranches a bout of unhappiness must have seeped in from time-to-time. This disingenuous pattern weighs like a fog cloud over Memoirs and leaves no room for any sincere resolution of a hardship well spent. Save for the unending catfight with Hatsumomo, Sayuri’s obstacles have all been left behind with her pre-geisha years. When it comes time for Sayuri and her exotic, piercing blue eyes to net the highest pussy purchase in geisha history (to a kind, but much, MUCH older gentleman), not only is there no reaction from her on what’s about to transpire, but Rob Marshall doesn’t even allow it to transpire. We get a long shot of the happy couple ready to get down to business and THEN, no business. Where is the nervousness, the uncertainty of one’s body and what the moment means to her? It’s not exploitive to witness a moment like this and Marshall doesn’t need to shoot it like a porn scene, but its not a moment that should be proud of adjectives like “beautiful” and “honorable.”

This PG-13 mentality to soften it up for Western eyes also does so for the ears. In a most precarious move to secure an easier sell at the box office, the actors speak not in their native tongue, but in English. Or, more appropriately, broken English. There’s not even a Tom Clancy moment where cinematographer Dion Beebe zooms in on a stationary object to evoke the switch from Japanese. It’s ALL English - ALL the time and it’s a serious impediment for the actors. Ziyi, who just a few years ago at the Oscars, barely spoke a word of it until she was goaded to on stage, suffers the most. How can she be struggling with inner turmoil when the film has made her ability to vocalize it even rougher?

Beebe does do a masterful job behind the camera, spiking up the visuals in the way that only wide open spaces and multi-colors can. Ziyi’s big coming out as a geisha performer looks like a beautifully muted version of the Cirque Du Soleil but suffers again from Marshall’s inability to make this moment anything but a beautiful painting. With our minds torn between the geisha’s cultural significance, it’s just another opportunity to witness a dance routine where we can’t help but wonder why no one is shouting out for a disrobing. Ziyi is a powerful force on screen, elaborating on how we define our sexy action heroines in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero. Even as the villainess in the miserable Rush Hour 2, their was a fire in her performance that is non-existent here. Of course there should be a muted quality since the geishas aren’t known for their Wu Shu fighting techniques, but Robin Swicord and Doug Wright’s adaptation have given Sayuri almost nothing to fight for anyway. Michelle Yeoh brings her usual grace to what isn’t much more than your standard mentor role. (I guess Liam Neeson was busy or didn’t want to pull a Sayonara.) Only Gong Li’s performance as the pouting drama queen resonates with the requisite passion that we should expect from a tale either embracing or rebelling against one’s destiny.

At close to 140 minutes, Memoirs of a Geisha doesn’t know where to end and has no idea how to start. It’s prologue sucks a good chunk out of the film and immediately placates us into an aura of disinterest. The second act goes well into the second hour and after the war begins, we’re too close to wrapping things up to start all over with the next chapter of Sayuri’s journey. The love story, which is so unrequited it barely exists, is basically nothing more than the equivalent of Timothy Hutton “waiting” for Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls and far closer to icky than sweet. Geisha winds up tripping over its flamboyant garments instead of communicating why they’re so elegant in the first place. This was Marshall’s first big chance to break free of his theatrical roots yet seems determined to be restricted by the boundaries that are supposed to be opened up when living the life of a Geisha. In essence Chicago comes closer to capturing that life of artists and performance; Memoirs is just whoring for a little prestige known as the Oscars.

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originally posted: 12/09/05 16:08:45
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User Comments

11/25/13 Vanessa C. Beautiful movie and the story was great. 5 stars
8/15/13 Anon It was a great and well-moving story. 4 stars
6/02/11 Bethany Pairitz Very beautifully shot movie. I was pretty moved! 4 stars
12/16/09 A Girl pretty to look at but not much else 3 stars
10/23/09 Kae I loved this movie. At the end it is a tear gerker. 5 stars
1/17/09 Shaun Wallner Fell asleep to this one. 2 stars
1/10/09 Anonymous. i wish the film was as great as its cinematography. 3 stars
4/11/08 EMILIA One of my most fave movies ever! Love! Movie critic is mean and bored with life. 5 stars
3/07/08 mb beautiful movie. loved it. 4 stars
6/14/07 Angelica I love this movie! 5 stars
12/26/06 johnnyfog Can'!! Loved Gong Li as crazy evil psycho bitch 4 stars
10/06/06 Kara Not what I thought it was about 3 stars
6/18/06 Anastasia Jonson This movie showed me alot about Japan that I didn't know. Entertaining and educational. 5 stars
6/08/06 Lisa Extremely boring - didn't even bother to finish it. One out of five for the look of it. 1 stars
5/03/06 Ashley Hinz Who cares if most of the actors were Chinese? Flawed, but I loved it. 5 stars
4/06/06 Troy M. Grzych Best explanation about sex: Eel in the cave!! Excellent movie! 5 stars
3/24/06 jesika loved it loved it loved it- CAPTIVATING but u must read the book 1ST 5 stars
3/23/06 Meredith Harshaw Japan's so unlike Iran, where geishas were never out of the closet! 3 stars
3/08/06 Piz Chick flick where if you enjoyed the book, the movie does justice. 4 stars
2/02/06 Kankasaur 2010...6 Oscar nods to Rob Marshall's A Million Little Pieces, incl. James Frey's adaption. 5 stars
1/22/06 Musicianwriter Complaining about Chinese actors? Well, Broke Back used straight ones! Geisha is amazing! 5 stars
1/19/06 malcolm see it just for the talented and gorgeous Zhang Ziyi. very similar to "Kama Sutra: ..." 4 stars
1/11/06 Mansi Dido Zhang Ziyi excels (again) ! 4 stars
1/08/06 Sachiko The tradition of the Geisha IS still alive! The movie is extremely accurate. 5 stars
1/03/06 jcjs lovely, tender, colors, music, faces, water, ponds, story, romance, deception, love, life 5 stars
12/27/05 Chun Awkward orientalizing of a dead tradition 2 stars
12/26/05 bentable zZzZzZz 2 stars
12/26/05 Jonathon Holmes If I wanted to watch a soap opra, I would've stayed home and watched Laguna Beach on MTV! 3 stars
12/26/05 Agent DX Surprisingly good, despite bad reviews. 5 stars
12/10/05 Sergio Trite strory and painfully dull. Living death! 2 stars
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  09-Dec-2005 (PG-13)
  DVD: 28-Mar-2006



Directed by
  Rob Marshall

Written by
  Robin Swicord
  Doug Wright

  Zhang Ziyi
  Ken Watanabe
  Michelle Yeoh
  Gong Li
  Kaori Momoi
  Tsai Chin

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