In my opinion, the average man on the street still cannot really tell the difference between the main East Asian groups. It takes quite a lot of care and attention to distinguish between Chinese and Japanese, but it is something which Westerners are probably getting better at doing. Not long ago the common insult was that 'they all look the same', highlighting an apathy towards making the distinction. It's an often-overlooked racist comment that both nations would probably prefer never to hear again. So why, pray tell, would an American movie be made about Japanese Geisha girls, featuring a predominantly Chinese cast playing the girls? Although many would say that it makes no difference, arguably this is the very problem - once again the line between the two becomes smudged, only this time seemingly under the endorsement of both nations. It is a culturally reckless decision, but in Hollywood terms, casting Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li (three of the biggest Chinese names in cinema) as the central girls in a movie about Geisha guaranteed its success at the Box Office. Irrespective of the lines it blurs between the two nations, is this highly acclaimed movie based on an internationally bestselling novel actually any good?
Chiyo and her elder sister have just been sold into slavery. Their family was struggling as it was, but with the mother terminally ill and the father financially destitute, they are forced to sell the kids. Carted away in a cage, the two are separated and Chiyo is sent to a camp to become a Geisha. Under the firm command of Mrs. Nitta, who runs the house, she finds life their hard and is desperate to escape to find her sister but when reality sets in and she realises that she will be there to stay, Chiyo tries to embrace the very different world.
Whilst there she is in awe of (and afraid of) the professional Hatsumomo, one of the more reckless (but well-paid) Geisha's in the house. She also meets the enigmatic 'Chairman', who is kind to her and catches her eye, giving her the desire to - one day - meet him again. She grows into a blossoming young Geisha, at which point she discovers her friends become rivals and her owners become yet more possessive, mainly because of the realisation of their financial interest in them. She also meets the top Geisha, Mameha, who takes Chiyo under her wing, grants her the new name of Sayuri and trains her in the true art of being a magnificent Geisha. But what will the future hold for this young beauty as she climbs the ladder of success in this world?
Memoirs of a Geisha is a rich, thoughtful study of the art of being a Geisha girl, focussed by a central story of one girl's plight in this female-dominated universe that plays to the desires of rich men. Taking you all the way up to - and past - the retribution following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the tale is both moving and sorrowful. The movie paints the girls as exquisite and untouchable, pristine examples of beauty paraded around for the delectation of their clients. The girls go through hell - and heaven - dressing up, perfecting their makeup and honing their dance skills until their graceful movements have the desired effect. They get to the point where a single glance can distract any unwitting man.
The in-house rivalry goes to the extreme, with Geishas vying for the same men, trying to attract the most attention and creating bidding wars for the sale of their virginity. Hang on a second, did I say virginity? Well, that's the twist, because when it comes down to it, this is still effectively the tale of a girl sold into slavery, dressed up and trained to entertain men and then sold to the highest bidder. Ring any bells? When you're talking about a girl who is just on the cusp of turning sixteen, it sounds even worse.
I know there's a difference between this and child prostitution, but it's a fine line and slaves are slaves. Dress them up in fancy outfits and teach them that it is an honour to get the greatest sum for your virginity but you can't disguise the fact that they are just really expensive, high-class prostitutes. Is this such a big issue? Well, whilst watching the film you get drawn into the Geisha world, fully absorbed into the mentality, almost blinded into believing that their pride in what they do makes it much more than what it truly is. So when you realise the truth of it all, it can be a bit disappointing - for clearly some serious glamorisation has gone on here.
Now, watching Leon or even Mr and Mrs Smith is no less enjoyable even when you know that the truth is that hitmen take human lives, so why should Memoirs of a Geisha be any different? The answer is that it is not. Memoirs of a Geisha is still an enjoyable, dramatic and bittersweet period piece, soaked deeply in now-forgotten culture and simply exuding style and grace. It's a beautiful creation, well-written, lovingly filmed in sumptuous locations and brimming with rich characters that are brilliantly brought to life by the respective actors on hand.
Heading up the cast we have Ziyi Zhang. Over the last ten years (I can't believe she's now 27) she has proved herself a force to be reckoned with on the big screen. She is an extremely versatile actress, capable of displayin love, lust, jealousy, anger and innocence in whatever proportion and at whatever time it is required of her. Whether simmering in Wong-Kar Wai's 2046 or gracefully wielding a sword and practicing wire-fu martial arts in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero or House of Flying Daggers, she seems at home with whatever role she takes on. Probably the most common theme in her movies, however, is the idea that one of the male leads is madly in love with her - and understandably so, considering her youthful beauty and elegance (she is frighteningly convincing as the 14 years old version of her character in this movie) - Memoirs of a Geisha is no different. She perfectly suits the part of Chiyo and can do style and substance with equal aplomb and, although you wonder how her character can be quite so naïve sometimes, this never reflects badly on her performance.
Supporting her we have Jackie Chan's former partner in kicking ass, Michelle Yeoh. Although I did not think she suited being a Bond girl, she's a beautiful, talented actress nonetheless and is perfect in the guise of Mameha, mentor to Chiyo. Gong Li rounds off the three Geisha leads, playing the reckless, rebellious but extremely popular Hatsumomo. She also has a laudable history in movies, was also in 2046 and starred in Farewell my Concubine. This movie marks her first English-speaking role (which she is following it up by taking a cameo role in the upcoming - and quite promising - Michael Mann-directed big screen version of Miami Vice) and she is also very convincing in the part. Her character, whilst being the least sympathetic, is probably also the most human in this dictatorial Geisha regime.
Aside from these Chinese cast members (ok, so Michelle Yeoh was actually born in Malaysia), we also get plenty of Japanese support - most of the other Geisha (both girls and matrons) are Japanese actresses and both Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Batman Begins) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Rising Sun, Pearl Harbour) play important male roles. Watanabe is a great actor and has proved this in both of the aforementioned movies (although he was vastly underused in Batman) but I do wonder about his part in this film - as the 'Chairman', Chiyo's true love - he's nearly fifty in real life and, no matter how much makeup they apply, he still looks like a guy Chiyo (whose character is supposed to be about 16) is not likely to yearn to be with.
Still, all of the cast do their jobs well and, as I've stated, it's a beautifully filmed, decently scripted movie that is perfectly enjoyable to watch. Irrespective of the cultural problems spawned from the casting (apparently the movie was banned in China because Chinese actresses were cast as Japanese Geisha) and the slightly dubious morality that it portrays, it is still a lavish period piece brimming with sensuality and strong emotion. It is not quite the innocent love story that some might have been hoping for, but it is still a rich period drama that is well worth your time.
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