“You will embarrass yourself in style,” is how the fortune cookie message for the movie version of Arthur Golden’s book “Memoirs of a Geisha” could have read. That, or something more trite: “Leave well enough alone.” It was, how you say, a “rittre” bit disappointing. It’s a potentially profound and bitter love story told in generic Asian-accented English and fraught with the usual Hollywood Academy Award-gunning standbys, including Steven Spielberg, one of the three producers, who can’t resist an exotic setting or tragic story lines with queasy life lessons for the viewers and not a little cheese in the bittersweet finales.
A lot of snide remarks about this movie will follow in this review, but it should be known that watching it will not be a waste of time and it is a good conversation starter when the credits roll.
Chinese actresses Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang, the duo that stunned us as appropriately Chinese kung-fu marvels in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” were tapped, in Hollywood’s fact-glossing logic, for roles as Japanese geisha. The choice proves that, to Westerners, all those Asian countries are the same thing anyway, and Hollywood has a back stock of only four or five Asian actors to be used universally in any role that satiates the mild Asian fetishes in the theaters and calls for the confusion of the English “l” and “r.”
The story introduces Western audiences to the life of a Japanese geisha, Sayuri (Zhang), tracking her illustrious career from shortly before her poor fisherman’s family sold her to a glorified escort-service house in the city before World War II. Sayuri is both awed and scorned by a domineering, beautiful geisha, Hatsumomo (Chinese screen legend Li Gong) and, when she comes of age, is swept into the geisha’s life, a nether region between prostitution and closed-legged gentleman’s escort service. Her mentor, Mameha (Yeoh), indoctrinates her to the frivolous arts of witty conversation, straight-backed shuffling in platform sandals, dancing and the overwrought demonstration of the power to “stop men in their tracks with a single glance.”
Sayuri is in love with the Chairman (Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai” fame), but must stifle her emotions while escorting his best friend Nobu (Koji Yakusho of “Shall We Dance?”), a businessman with unrelenting moral standards and a disfiguring facial scar. U.S. soldiers eventually invade at the close of the war, their presence rippling Japan’s methodic, ritualistic status quo, upsetting balances of power among both the geisha and their wealthy clients.
Sayuri fell in love with the Chairman when she was a prepubescent child, after he bought her the pre-WWII Japanese equivalent of a snow cone. Against credibility, her childish love born of a monetary favor endured into adulthood. The movie is an historical and cultural treatise on a profession and a nation that easily tingles Western imaginations, but the plot’s driving force is this improbable love story. If you don’t think people fall in love that way before you watch the movie, you still won’t when it’s finished.
The U.S. soldiers are culture-stomping, whoring drunkards, which seems like another tired dig at U.S. citizens, specifically those abroad. The irony is that the movie delivering this message, written and paid for by Yankees, is one big steamroller over Japanese culture – the leading geisha are not Japanese and hardly a word of that language is spoken on screen.
Here I would like to make a call for an appreciation of subtitles. Is it really so hard for the focus group-dependent financiers of potentially beautiful movies to have faith that U.S. audiences will watch a movie with subtitles? Nearly every movie in Costa Rica is subtitled, and lines in front of ticket booths are often so long you miss the previews.
Brace yourself for a story of potentially great beauty and injustice, tainted by Hollywood compromises and a happy ending.