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Laborious, Predictable "Geisha" Verges on Camp

Laborious, Predictable "Geisha" Verges on Camp

Release Date:  December 23, 2005 (wide)
Rating:  PG-13 (mature subject matter and some sexual content)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  145 min.
Director:  Rob Marshall
Actors:  Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe

“Memoirs of a Geisha,” a sprawling adaptation of the best-selling Arthur Golden novel, tells a conventional story in a most conventional way, and all the opulence of its exotic locales can’t change that. A slowly unfolding tale about a way of life mysterious to most Westerners, “Memoirs” is a soap opera of human and professional jealousy that isn’t so mysterious at all.

At the heart of the film is Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), sold as a child to a geisha house in Kyoto, Japan. “I wasn’t born a geisha,” Chiyo tells us in one of many unnecessary and increasingly irritating voiceovers. “I was carried there.”

Separated from her sister, Chiyo learns how to get by in her new surroundings, while trying to keep her distance from head geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), who, sensing a potential rival in the geisha house, has nothing but unkind words for the young Chiyo.

Chiyo is removed from that situation by Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), who gives her a new name, Sayuri (portrayed by an older actress, Ziyi Zhang), and instructs her in the ways of a geisha. “Geishas are not courtesans, not wives,” Sayuri learns, although she’s seen Hatsumomo become intimate with a male client. “‘Geisha’ means ‘artist,’” Mameha asserts. “To be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.”

Mameha banks on the ability to sell the chaste Sayuri to a male bidder who will value Sayuri’s virginity. Explaining the situation to Sayuri by using the illustration of an eel and a cave (yes, you read that correctly), she says, “Your cave is untouched. We must sell it to the highest bidder.”

But the road to love for Sayuri is rocky. Her past will come back to haunt her, and she’ll have to navigate the advances of more than one man. Yet the events of World War II can’t compare to the battle royal between Sayuri and Hatsumomo, who tries to carry out her vow to destroy Sayuri.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” is lovely to look at, with its natural scenery matched only by the beauty of its three lead actresses (none of whom are Japanese). But the film suffers from problematic pacing. It bogs down early and feels inert during much of the first hour. When things start to heat up, they go too far, too fast, propelled by a combination of sex, lies and jealousy not overly different from any number of other films that mix romance and professional politics.

Adding to the trouble is the filmmakers’ dubious decision to tell the story, set in Japan, in English. In an effort to avoid subtitles and therefore boost the box-office appeal of this big-budget holiday release, director Rob Marshall and his cohorts saddle their actors with a language that clearly isn’t their native tongue. Each word is held a fraction of a second too long, as if the actors are trying to recall which English word comes next. Hatsumomo’s hostility toward Sayuri comes off sounding even more amusing, as she struggles to spew her venom in a language that doesn’t come naturally to the actress.

Gong’s performance as the menacing Hatsumomo is both a blessing and a curse, for without it, the final product would amount to an over-stuffed, forgettable film. Unfortunately, the performance is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Her explosions of jealousy and outrage lead to more giggles than they do shock, as she screams, shouts, and sneers with a theatricality more appropriate for the stage than the film screen.

But let it not be said that Gong doesn’t command the screen. She most certainly does, giving this otherwise predictable film something noteworthy – the possibility of excitement, or hysterics, every time she appears.

AUDIENCES: Older teens and up.


  • Language/Profanity:  “ba--ards”
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Pipe smoking; drinking of sake.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Geishas kiss their clients and, in two scenes, have sex with them; a geisha is assaulted by a male client; virginity is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold; Sex is explained to Chiyo using an illustration involving an eel and a cave.
  • Violence:  A woman is slapped in the face; a girl falls from a rooftop; a geisha cuts herself.
  • Religion:  A girl prays to become a geisha, and later says her prayers were answered.