Hippo Manchester
December 29, 2005

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FILM: Memoirs of a Geisha (R)  C

by Amy Diaz

A heartrending tale of sublimated desire is beautifully painted and rather ridiculously played out in Memoirs of a Geisha, the movie adaptation of the book by Arthur Golden.

There is a fundamental problem with a movie about foreigners, set in a foreign country but made for American audiences and that problem is the English dialogue. Sure, I understand why on a practical level you want your characters to speak the language that your domestic audience does (which, importantly around this time of year, includes quite a few fuddy duddy Oscar votes who prefer their subtitles to stick to the foreign language nominees). But the result, especially in a movie like this, is English with country-specific (sorta) accents. It adds a small but unshakeable element of fakeness to everything, from the lavish kimonos to the Desperate Geishas soapy plot. It’s as though you built a detailed and intricate recreation of the a Japanese teahouse but left the Acme Drywall stamps showing. Instead of losing yourself in the period, you feel a little like you’re on the Far East ride at Epcot.

The Far East ride with girlfights because these geishas might seem all demure and mannered in public but behind closed doors they are back-stabbing, indentured-servant sorority sisters. Most of them come to the trade, we learn, as Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), who as a little girl is sold by her parents. Chiyo’s blue eyes save her from her older sister’s fate of working in a brothel. Instead,, lucky girl that she is, Chiyo gets to work as a servant at a geisha house.  A couple of plot twists and a jump forward in time later and Chiyo has now been renamed Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) and she is trying to dance, juggle fans, pour tea and otherwise endear herself to wealthy business men who prefer the geishas to their arranged-marriage wives. The geishas, as we are told, are not common prostitutes but artists who use beauty to create the fantasy of an almost magical world for the men that, well, eventually pay a whole lot of money to sleep with them. So, you know, not common prostitutes — really expensive prostitutes.

It starts with their First Time, which instead of happening in the back seat of a car at the prom includes a big payout by some lucky guy who might be helping the geisha buy her freedom. If freedom can’t be purchased, your only hope for lasting financial security is to be adopted by the owner of the geisha house and inherit the establishment (which survives on the earnings of the new geisha). And here’s where much of the hair pulling comes in. Hatsumomo (Gong Li) is a famous geisha who watches as Sayuri grows from the little girl who cleans rooms to a threat to Hatsumomo’s fame and profitability. Having been something of a diva for all of her geisha years, Hatsumomo realizes she’s unlikely to inherit the house and so takes as her protégé Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), Sayuri’s childhood friend and now another rival of Sayuri’s geisha generation. Sayuri, however, isn’t completely alone, she has Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), an even more successful geisha.

And thus begins a high school-ish game of posturing and gossiping in an attempt to come out ahead on the whole selling-of-one’s-virginity thing or the securing-of-a-sugar-daddy race (which is the way a geisha stays afloat, financially, during her pre-middle-age years). A lot of the intrigue about the sugar daddy’s has to do with Nobu (Koji Yakusho), a grumpy but ultimately decent man who loves Sayuri. She, for whatever reason, is no fan of his but is all moony-eyed over Chairman (Ken Watanbe), a man she first meets as child who she then runs into during assorted story-appropriate times.

Outside this Melrose Place of jealousies and social climbing, Japan builds its army, becomes friends with Germany, goes to war and has its cities bombed by the Allies. Sayuri is eventually sent away to make kimonos in the untouched-by-war hills only to float back into the geisha game a few years later to pick up the story again. We get the feeling that important stuff (or maybe just interesting stuff) is left out to get us to the movie’s end in just over two hours, but perhaps some of it should have been left in as the “and they meet again, the end” quality to the last 10 minutes leaves you feeling that all this angst should have had a bigger pay off.

Actually, all this everything (costumes, panoramic camera shots, historical and social change, the cat fights) should have had a bigger pay off. Even the silly voiceover narration that flows through the movie like the water that is one of the film’s most tortured metaphors doesn’t really dampen the hope that lasts — through at least a good 60 percent of the movie — that all this build-up is going to go somewhere. Instead, the movie sort of loses interest in itself, throws us a few fortune cookie revelations about life and hopes we don’t notice its weariness beneath all that rice powder makeup.