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‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Film Review: Like silk kimonos and cherry blossoms

From Arthur Golden’s international bestseller to an epic spectacle in the big screen, “Memoirs of a Geisha” offers a romantic portrait of Japanese culture, particularly of geisha life, with a western illustration.

This tale retells the looming view of women in many cultures of the past. Women have been portrayed in various cultures as nothing more than delights to the men’s eyes and as parts of their desire for asset and power. Issues can be raised in a story such as this, as the geishas are meant to be admired and savored by men as trophies and sources of masculine entertainment.

This period piece is visually and aurally spectacular. Yet, at some point, it gets emotionally remote. It focuses much on the technical side of storytelling than putting more heart into the love and angst of an oppressed woman and geisha.

The novel’s rich material greatly inspires the epic span of this film into an exotically sumptuous production. The lush interpretation of the lives of painted faces, silk-wrapped and dolled-up women promoting their artistic skills and culture reveals a tale of poverty, romance, deceit, and dreams. The screen is filled with lavish images that can amaze the’ senses. The viewers can enjoy the sights of the pretty paper lanterns, beautiful silk kimonos, cedar and bamboo buildings, and other various displays of artifice. They can take pleasure on listening to the orientalist fantasy created by John William’s fitting musical score. From the superb cello solos to the rest of the orchestral pieces, the score greatly supports the movie’s narrative essentials as a western film about an ancient Japanese tradition. However, at some point, the sprawling sets of old Kyoto and the colorful geisha district already become straining to the film’s storytelling.

Everything seems beautiful in this motion picture — even the slums. As Director Rob Marshall allows the audience to enjoy much of the visual spectacle, the technical grandeur already upstages the dirt and the emotions the story needs. Moreover, some of the framed sets and backgrounds turn out overly staged that they look more like studio sets with too much theatrical movements and unrealistic neatness, coordination, and colors. The narrative falls pray to superficiality than cinematic greatness.

Overall, the major characters manage to grab the audience’s eyes for the picture’s visual artistry and deeply-felt performances. The clear commercial compromises remain apparent. A number of major and supporting roles are given to renowned Chinese actresses Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, and Li Gong. While this is considerably fine in the way that an Australian actor can portray an American or European role, it becomes an issue to those who couldn’t get that suspension of disbelief for such popular non-Japanese performers doing crucial roles in this clearly Japanese narrative. Other than Ken Watanabe and a few others on the side, there are is minimal Japanese representation in the acting department.

The drama in the life of the impoverished nine-year old Chiyo and the new chapter in her life from living in a remote fishing village to being sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district is shown like an Asian “Cinderella” story. The presentation runs through a path of becoming overly sentimental rendering a more soap opera vibe. But with its originating novel carefully crafted into a moving saga of identity, beauty, wealth, longing, suffering, politics, and power within an ancient Japanese tradition, the movie is still able to take advantage of the well-written bestseller’s marketing value.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” provides a good source of entertainment and a short glance of the Japanese society before post-war happenings, industrialization, and westernization — a time right before the country country transforms into the modern economic and cultural power that it is today.

Suzuka Ohgo plays well as Chiyo. Ziyi Zhang is radiant as Sayuri. She renders a fine performance as a well-trained geisha under the mentorship of the equally effective Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). She justifies the artistic and social skills a geisha exudes more than just having pancake make-up, silk kimono, and geisha umbrella. Michelle Yeoh, Li Gong (Hatsumomo) and Youki Kudoh (Pumpkin) also offer visual delights to the audience. Amidst the lesser screen time for developing their characters, the supporting males Ken Watanabe (the Chairman) and Koji Yakusho (Nobu) still provide effective performances. These major and supporting characters contribute to the narrative’s considerable details relating to geisha entertainment and romance in the 1920’s.

After all the cinematic showdown of technically commendable shots, it is quite ironic that the film’s ending tries to draw a subtle face from a tragedy. Even the romantic aspect of Sayuri and the Chairman during the height of the tale simply yields to pretty much the same thing as the other gorgeous shots of cherry blossoms and silk kimonos.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” is worth seeing for its audio-visual feast. This epic romance period piece is for the ears and the eyes, but not enough for the heart.

Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.

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