Memoirs of a Geisha turned out to be exactly what I thought it would be, which is precisely why it's so disappointing. The film emerges as a distinctly Western take on Eastern melodrama, where Japanese characters played by Chinese people speak English in thick accents; where shots of the Japanese locales of the 20th century's first half are fetishized as beauty worthy of the word exotic; where the women are only as desirable as they are mysterious. In other words, it is not Asian -- it's Oriental.
Had this story been set in the present day, it would've been unthinkable, but the film deflects this angle of criticism by taking place in an idealized past. And, as always, Hollywood excels at idealizing the past. The movie's style could quite possibly pass as "Classic Hollywood," with its tale of a simple melodrama based on the determination of a woman society attempts to bring down over and over again. The emphasis here is in setting up an easy-to-follow story about repressed love and surrounding it with beautiful technical work -- lush music, picture perfect cinematography, great costumes -- and actors of international appeal and acclaim.
That shell of an idea has potential, but to apply it to such a story -- and the logistical challenges it presents -- seems unwise. I haven't read the popular novel on which the movie is based, but just from seeing the movie I would've advised against mounting such a project. For instance, take the issue of assembling a non-English-speaking mixed Asian cast and having them all speak in a manner Americans can understand without subtitles. The actors range from Chinese of different worldly origins (Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh) to Japanese (Ken Watanabe, Youki Kudoh, Kôji Yakusho), all with clashing accents and various levels of proficiency in English. The filmmakers decided that the characters should have a uniform accent, which is a monumental task to achieve -- not only must the actors learn English, they must learn it in a specific, unnatural way. And the dialogue itself emphasizes the sounds of this accent.
As a result, lines sound stilted; they're awkwardly formal and sometimes grammatically short cut to accommodate a sound that people who aren't used to seeing Asians might associate with Asians. If so much time was taken to teach the cast a uniform version of English, why not try your best to have the actors speak in proper English? Is it because "You are to become geisha!" sounds naturally more Eastern than "You are to become a geisha," or even "You will become a geisha"? I don't think there would've been any suitable solution because the undertaking itself is impractical. I feel for the actors, but they end up speaking in a manner so clumsy and dense that my own Chinese parents would have a terrible time understanding them.
But that's just a branch issue in how this movie is a bad idea. The main problem stems from the trunk of the concept -- that the film would be an Eastern movie made to resemble the most unchallenging Western ideal of what the East is. It's all too appropriate that the heroine, Sayuri (Zhang), is deemed unique because she has blue eyes -- a Western standard of beauty. She and her kimono and demure disposition and the cherry blossoms that fall around her as she walks on the quaint little wooden bridge precisely communicate a comfortable fantasy that, frankly, even Westernized Asians would buy. It's a soothing force that reinforces old, outdated perceptions of Japan at a time when we simply don't need more of these reinforcements. It's Japanland, the newest attraction at Disneyland.
Equally as soothing is its story, a simplistic tale of repressed love that carries some redeeming value by focusing on how women who live in a society that treats them as second-class citizens and sex objects manage to use what tools they have to manipulate themselves into higher positions in society. Frankly, any woman can relate to this. But even with the self-conscious production design and the female issues focus, Douglas Sirk this is not. The characters are two-dimensional and the movie spends a lot of time pitting the women against each other, so that they're like combatants waiting to scratch each other's eyes out.
Seeing some of my favorite actresses in this movie gave me very mixed emotions. Ziyi Zhang is normally a firecracker, but here she's not only held back by her victimized character but also hamstrung by having to act in English. Michelle Yeoh, likewise, is held back by the formality of her reserved character. Only Gong Li has some space; as the evil (there is no other word to use, really) Hatsumomo, she gets to be mean and emotional, but her character isn't given much range. I never got the feeling that she was a human being first, plot driver second. And as much as I love these women, I still pause at the thought of having them play Japanese women over some potentially talented, deserving Japanese actresses.
Do I hate this movie? No, I can't say that I do -- its enforcement of the outdated ideal of the Orient will be tempered a bit by the time setting and perhaps more by its overt Hollywood feel; that is, it doesn't seem real in the least, so it's easy to recognize it as simply a glossy studio production. And it does give more Western exposure to talented people who deserve it -- Zhang, Gong, Yeoh, Watanabe, and others. No such thing as bad publicity, right? It's not what I was hoping for, but it could have been worse than what I expected, which wasn't much in the first place. From that point of view, Memoirs of a Geisha amounts to no more than a trifle.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG-13" for mature subject matter and some sexual content.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.