Initially set in 1929, Memoirs of a Geisha revolves around Chiyo, a young girl who lives with her sister and parents in a little fishing community. With her mother on deaths door and her father not far behind, they are taken into Kyoto's Gion district, where she is sold to a Geisha house and her sister is taken elsewhere to be sold (which is soon revealed to be a more seedy side of the Gion district). Destined to be taught in the ways of the Geisha, poor Chiyo is subjected to some very cruel behaviour, not only from the house's owners, but mostly from Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the head Geisha. Alas poor Cinderella, I mean Chiyo, learns the hard way about discipline and life and from a destiny of becoming an aspiring Geisha, she is soon made into nothing but a slave due to her considerable knack of getting into trouble which cost the house money, thereby increasing her debt to them. A chance meeting with the Chairman (Watanabe), soon makes Chiyo realise how much she wishes to be a Geisha - not just because she has fallen in love with the Chairman, but the idea of being a Geisha finally appeals to her, but as she is nothing more than a slave, what she once was being groomed for appears to be no longer in her grasp. A bizarre twist of fate occurs when Mameha (Yeoh), Hatsumomo's rival, strikes a bargain with Chiyo's owners. The deal is that she can train Chiyo in the ways of a Geisha in 6 months, but should she fail, then Mameha will pay back double the debt. Of course, Mameha transforms the young Chiyo into the beautiful Geisha Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi), which causes much friction between her and Hatsumomo, because Mother, the owner of the Geisha house, will adopt either Sayuri or Pumpkin to be her successor (she didn't adopt Hatsumomo) and if Sayuri is picked, Hatsumomo will not have the prestige or power as such, that she craves.OK, there's a huge hint as to the obvious parallels this story has with a certain well known tale, but let's be fair here, they are pretty obvious and read like a list of clichés. Poor Girl - Check. Mean Sisters - Check. Prince Charming - Check. Overcoming adversity - Check. Putting the Sisters nose out of joint - Check. You get the point, I'm sure (I just feel like hammering it home). However, while I may point out that this is hardly the most original premise for a film, the execution is certainly superb, almost entrancing. Why? Well, let's be honest, Ziyi isn't exactly unpleasant on the eye and neither is Gong Li (even if she is 40!), the story rattles along at a fair rate of knots, there's a will-she-won't-she element in terms of getting her Prince Charming, because there's a bit more than the Cinderella/Prince Charming scenario which I've glossed over and the scenery is quite stunning. Of course, with Rob Marshall directing this, we could pretty much guarantee that the visual side of things would be amazing, given his turn with Chicago, but it is actually better than I thought - from the rooftops of Kyoto to the garden of the General, it is by turn dark and ominous, light and beautiful.
As stated, it is visually stunning, which is part of it's charm - it does transport you to another time and place, but there is a lot more going on than just onscreen and that's in terms of the story. While I have stated that it's nothing more than a Cinderella story, there are plenty of twists and turns from the simple tale that it's based on. The main one that effectively knocks you off the track is how Chiyo initially fails as a Geisha and becomes a slave to the house. There's this moment where you think “It's called Memoirs of a Geisha, not a slave. Ok, where's this going”, especially when you consider that the Mother of the house is so strict coupled with the Japanese culture, you couldn't possibly see how she would forgive Chiyo and let her return to the Geisha school. So then, where was it going? Follow this up with Mameha's offer, keeping in mind how earlier Chiyo had ruined a kimono of Mameha's and you start wondering why these events are happening. Then when the war comes and Sayuri is only a Geisha inside and not externally, you again wonder what's coming next. If that's not enough, you have Pumpkin, the rage of Hatsumomo and the lost love of Mameha are all little sub-plots and elements of the whole tale that is presented here, which does indeed make it quite an interesting movie.
Of course, the controversy with this movie isn't quite in the same league as Brokeback Mountain, but it appears that the west found it strange that none of the actors are actually Japanese. Even more ironic, the Japanese didn't care, as Ziyi and Li are so popular over there, it was water off a duck's back (or should that be Hoi Sin instead of water ?) Ok, maybe it's not quite authentic but hey - given Hollywood's track record, it could have been worse. They could have cast Madonna and Jessica Simpson in the lead roles! Now that's a terrifying thought if ever there were one. Thankfully, with two of the better Asian actresses present in the form of Li and Ziyi and also Michelle Yeoh and Ken Watanabe giving the movie a boost with their presence, as they are probably more widely known (even if the Bond movie Yeoh starred in wasn't great and people only know Watanabe from Batman Begins), there isn't truly a weak link in the casting and all are believable and fit in well, regardless of the critics moans. It's also worth noting that Li didn't speak a word of English until this movie (in fact, when she is interviewed in the extras, she still doesn't speak English and is translated!)
So, as you may have guessed, I really liked this movie. I think it works very well on screen, is very stylish and to be fair, up until the DVD hit the doormat, I'd never seen it and viewed it with an open mind, with the only things I knew about it was that it was directed by Marshall and a friend of mine said it was dull. I've since watched it twice and I think that it'll get a few more plays this year. I really enjoyed this, especially after my earlier disappointment with Brokeback Mountain.
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