Geisha’s beauty only skin-deep

by Glen Baity

Rob Marshall exploded onto the screen, jazz hands a-flapping, with 2002’s Chicago. A remarkable film in just about every way, it had great songs, visual spark, and it impressed audiences as a witty and endlessly entertaining adaptation of the acclaimed and historic Broadway show. Marshall even proved to me that Richard Gere could be perfectly watchable, even likeable, with adequate coaching (which, considering my long-held and deep distaste for Gere, is some trick). I was eager to see what Marshall would do next, and I was excited when his name became permanently attached to the long-shuffled-about adaptation of one of my favorite novels, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.

As skeptical as I often am about the wisdom of adapting novels to the screen, I was excited to see how Marshall would interpret the book’s layered, beautiful imagery. Chicago cinematographer Dion Beebe, who also made the LA streets snarl in Collateral, again works with Marshall on Memoirs, and I can think of few teams more well-equipped to make visual poetry out of Golden’s lyrical prose.

As expected, the film’s look is unquestionably its strongest point. Some of the scenes ‘— particularly the geishas’ performances ‘— are filled with color and light, and they make a stunning impact. The extent to which Marshall has internalized Golden’s descriptive text couldn’t be clearer, and if Memoirs isn’t a transcendent film, it’s far more than just another pretty face.

Set in the years leading up to World War II, the film tells the story of Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang), a young girl from a coastal Japanese fishing village sold into servitude by her father. She spends a year or two washing floors and carrying water at a Kyoto geisha house. The matriarch of the house, intending to groom Chiyo for stardom in the geisha tradition, sends the young girl to study the subtle art of companionship. She finishes her training under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), who rechristens her Sayuri before her formal introduction into high society. In a forbidden act of independence, Sayuri falls in love with the chairman of a large electric company (Ken Watanabe) while grappling with intense competition from Hatsumomo (Li Gong), who early on commits herself to making the girl’s path as arduous as possible.

The film comes up short in an area where, in fairness, it probably couldn’t have been completely satisfying. The devil here is in the details, or in the film adaptation’s case, a lack thereof. While late-’30s Japan is obsessively recreated, there are other, less obvious elements that are sadly overlooked. Golden’s novel is so affecting because of his commitment to the process by which Chiyo transforms herself from an impoverished servant to a legendary geisha. The innumerable details of a geisha’s everyday life are a narrative hook unto themselves, and I was disappointed to see this process undercut. The film loses something as it speeds through Chiyo’s training, and what’s left of the story is marked by a surprising lack of depth. Even for those unfamiliar with the book, the plot always makes sense ‘— it’s just lessened here, a Snow White story without a poison apple.

Though coherent, the film can be a little puzzling ‘— one moment Chiyo is a bumbling student, the next an articulate dinner companion and competent seductress (Marshall unwisely relies on a montage to hurry things along). Unconvincing as well is Sayuri’s relationship with the chairman. On the page it’s an epic romance spanning decades, but the film version rings false. The two never spend much time together, a problem solved in the book by the first-person narrative, which tells the long, sad story. The film doesn’t effectively convey this laconic love affair, and it’s a shame. I was deeply moved at the end of the novel, but at the end of the film I could barely work up a shrug.

That’s not to say the film is without merit, nor am I a teetotal literalist when it comes to adaptations. Memoirs of a Geisha is an accomplishment visually, but too many missing pieces cause it to stumble in a way that belies the grace of its source material.

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