Memoirs of a Geisha
How could I resist a film starring Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, and Gong Li? Especially when they frequently appear on screen in the same scenes together?
When it’s a film about slavery. I had the same reaction to the movie as the book: romanticizing an evil institution may illuminate the fact that the institution was complex and a key cultural ingredient at one time, but it doesn’t’t change the fact of the evil. It’s like romanticizing the Pre-Civil-War South in the U.S. while glossing over that slaves were regularly whipped in the fields to pick cotton faster.
Another problem is that this film is in English. I’m accustomed to seeing real Japanese films in Japanese, with English subtitles, or with a choice of spoken English or Japanese. Usually I find the Japanese to be more expressive so hearing the characters here speaking English on a regular basis is a bit jarring.
Finally, I had a real problem with Ziyi Zhang as the lead character. Normally, she’s one of my favorites, having starred in films as varied as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, and The Road Home. But here I just couldn’t get over that in the past I’ve loved seeing her play exciting, resourceful Chinese women. Not that it’s wrong for a Chinese woman to play a Japanese geisha, but I had a difficult time not imagining her leaping from rooftop to rooftop, brandishing a sword, or dancing up a storm in the Echo Dance.
Which brings me to another major disappointment. I was hoping to see more of the artistic performance aspects of Memoirs of a Geisha, especially the dancing and the music. We’re only treated to a small sampling here, and I think the movie suffers from it. Much is said in the narration and by the characters about the special artistic embodiment that the geisha is, but we never quite get to see a big enough dose to understand the institution’s cultural significance.
Finally, much has been said by “mainstream reviewers” about the sumptuous and lush appearance of this film. I was not that impressed. Maybe it was because there was something wrong about the theater projection system where I saw this film. The film I saw projected frequently employed muted colors and grainy, non-sharp photography.
In summary, this film disappointed me. If you enjoy “real” Japanese cinema, as I do, then this film will appear pale by comparison.
Review copyright (c) 2006 by Dennis D. McDonald