Reviews: Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Rob Marshall’s Memois of a Geisha doesn’t seem like it should have been a controversial motion picture. But the decision to use Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang as the films lead in lieu of a more authentic Japanese actress, caused major uproar in Japan, where the film was subsequently banned.

Now having seen Memoirs for myself, I can understand why the Japanese would be upset by something that seems to be a minor detail. This picture lacks not only authenticity but passion as well.

Don’t be mistaken. It is a beautifully scored and well-directed picture. Each shot is visually stunning with vivid colors and flawless acting. But it’s faults outnumber these glorious achievements.

Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha follows Chiyi (Ziyi Zhang) who rises from her poor upbringing to become Japan’s most celebrated geisha. Throughout her difficult journey, Chiyi is mentored by Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and tormented by rivals Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) and Hatsumomo (scene-stealer Gong Li) until she becomes the geisha Sayuri. The geisha becomes a lost art form during World War II and Sayuri is driven only by her love for the Chairman (Ben Wantanabe).

Memoirs lack of authenticity comes from the actor’s inability to morph into true geishas. The performers lack the extreme femininity yet mechanical movements of traditional Japanese women seen in Japanese productions.

The acting performances are as passionate as the passionless script allows. You never feel Sayuri’s love for the Chairman, her anger after many betrayals, her heartbreak when she is separated from her sister, or her excitement and nervousness during her geisha debut.

Memoirs of a Geisha does deliver. Despite its visual achievements, Memoirs fails to captivate and it comes to a big fart at the end.

Updated October 12, 2010

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