Sold into slavery by her parents as a child, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang, in a stunning performance) is resigned to a life of hardship and abuse. Raised amongst geishas, including the bitter Hatsumomo (a delectably vile Gong Li), Sayuri dreams of their educated and venerated lifestyle. When an unexpected benefactor (a scene-stealing Michelle Yeoh) comes looking for Sayuri, the frightened girl begins her long and arduous training to become a geisha. During this time, Sayuri rises to power, commanding the attention of every man she meets, and enraging Hatsumomo further. Nevertheless, all the adoration in the land can’t help satisfy Sayuri’s love for the one person, The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who was kind to her while she was a frightened little girl.
Based on the best-selling book of the same title, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is also director Rob Marshall’s long awaited follow-up to his Oscar-winning smash hit, the glammy musical, “Chicago.” It might sound absurd, but Marshall is an appropriate choice for “Geisha,” as the story centers on the theatricality of these women, and how they hide their emotions in the pursuit of performance. Meticulously produced and detailed, “Geisha” is a feast for the eyes, but icy to the touch.
“Geisha” is essentially a soap opera wrapped tightly in the robes of a holiday prestige picture, representing the finest in production quality and acting talent that normally comes along with this level of flagrant Oscar-baiting. The scope of craftsmanship on display in the film is largely impressive; it’s clear that Marshall knows how to photograph a pretty picture and set a specific mood. Production designer John Myher has worked miracles to encapsulate the insular pre-war atmosphere of Japan, using the narrow walkways and claustrophobic native paper-and-wood construction to set the right tempo in Sayuri’s escapeless surroundings. Marshall continues the general theme of oppression through the use of continuous rain and secretive nightfall to accompany the actors almost anywhere they go. Marshall gets the look of the locations and the era accurate, but he seems too preoccupied with the careful Eastern visuals, letting the rest of the film slip through his fingers.
Storywise, “Geisha” is an epic tale, taking place over many years and incorporating several important moments in history. The script, by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright, pays careful attention to the nuances of the era, when the geishas were cherished for their culture and companionship, along with being unequaled objects of lust. The screenplay attempts to iris in on Sayuri’s quest from child to adult as she searches for her love, The Chairman, but also tangos with the competition between the geishas, including the ruthlessly jealous Hatsumomo, who spends her time trying to sabotage Sayuri’s reputation. For the first two acts, these plotlines are enough, cleanly detailing the story while also allowing room for a historical portrait of a bygone era. As the times change, “Geisha” finds a little more ambition, and takes the tale through WWII.
The war sequences hold interest, mostly because they capture the bittersweet decline of the geisha, quickly replaced by crude prostitutes who easily con foreign serviceman out of their money with a little attention. The screenplay starts to make a play for a heavier emotional investment from the audience, through tragedy and Sayuri’s relocation despair, but the intended effect is never fully appreciated. As much as Marshall can maintain the atmosphere of the film, he is unable to crack the hard, thick shell of emotional catharsis. “Geisha” is a cold moviegoing experience, which is not a bad thing in itself, but to attempt more so late in the game is asking too much of this stoic motion picture.Rating: B