Memoirs of a Geisha

on December 23, 2005 by Sheri Linden
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Adapting Arthur Golden's novel to the bigscreen, director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") has created a lush, operatic period piece that abounds in detail, incident and spectacle and yet seldom connects on the emotional plane. For those ready to be swept up in this portrait of the final, pre-World War II years of Japan's insular geisha subculture, the film delivers a nonstop stream of visual delights. Others will find a self-conscious piece of exotica whose impact is more as cultural lesson than dramatic saga. However fine many of the performances and eminently watchable the central trio of Chinese superstar actresses (whose casting here has sparked some controversy), "Memoirs of a Geisha" probably should have been made in Japanese, the English dialogue serving as a distancing layer in the story's mix.

Impressive youngster Suzuka Ohgo plays nine-year-old orphaned fisherman's daughter Chiyo, a pretty girl with striking blue eyes "like rain" who is sold into servitude at a Kyoto okiya, or geisha household, run by "Mother" (the terrific, gravel-voiced Kaori Momoi). From the get-go she sparks the jealous spite of the house's No. 1 geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li, all but stealing the show as the imperious diva). It's not until a chance meeting with a kind businessman known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), two glamorous geishas in tow, that Chiyo resolves to become a geisha.

True to scholar Golden's book, the film reveals a highly defined, ultra-refined world of women who are neither prostitutes nor wives and who see no viable options other than this strange, competitive sisterhood. When she's 15, Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang, of "2046" and "House of Flying Daggers") becomes the protégée of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Mother's chief rival, in a deal the two women strike. Determined to make the beautiful girl an in-demand geisha, the elegant Mameha packs years' worth of lessons into a few months. Chiyo masters music, the fine art of conversation and walking in impossible shoes, until her debut as the rechristened Sayuri. Zhang, an actress of lithe physicality, gets to wow a group of potential patrons in a striking set-piece dance performance that's meant to spark a bidding war for Sayuri's virginity. A sensation, Sayuri withstands the continued undermining of Hatsumomo, her goal through all of this to be close to the Chairman, even as his business partner, Nobu (Koji Yakusho), falls in love with her.

Voiceover narration by the elderly Sayuri at times offers jewel-like bits of Eastern wisdom and at others tells us what we should be feeling in the unfolding scenes. Corny dialogue overtakes the late going, when the story's operatic sweep reaches a fever pitch of melodrama. There's no question that the handsome production is rich in atmosphere, its design elements and cinematography on the scale of a classic studio extravaganza. But there's also no question that because it rarely engages fully, "Memoirs" feels much longer than its hefty running time of nearly two and a half hours. Starring Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Suzuka Ohgo and Kaori Momoi. Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by Robin Swicord. Produced by Lucy Fisher, Douglas Wick and Steven Spielberg. A Columbia release. Period romantic drama. Rated PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content. Running time: 143 min

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