Tuesday 18th January 2022

Memoirs of a Geisha (12A)
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Reviewed by: Dave Witt

In 1929, at the age of nine, soon-to-be-orphaned Chiyo is effectively sold into slavery. Carried off from the fishing village of her childhood to Kyoto, she is deposited at one of the okiya (Geisha-houses) of the Gion district and made its domestic servant. She is separated at a stroke from her family and her home, treated with almost cartoonish cruelty and ruthlessly exploited. But maybe, if she's good, if she's very, very good, she might one day grow up to be a Geisha herself. As you might expect, that's exactly what she does.

Everyone froze as the fart echoed around the silent theatre
Everyone froze as the fart echoed around the silent theatre

Memoirs of a Geisha is adapted from Arthur Golden's meticulously-researched novel of 1997, which was accurately described by the New York Times as "high-end chick lit". Directed by Rob Marshall, who was responsible for the Oscar-winning Chicago, the film is a "re-imagining" of Golden's bestseller (in the director's own words). Indeed, the end result is about as historically accurate a portrayal of the geisha of Gion as Monty Python and the Holy Grail was of the Crusades (only without the laughs). Steven Spielberg was originally in line to direct this long-gestating project, but without his box-office pulling power the producers decided to use big name actresses instead.

The upshot of this is that the three leads in this most Japanese of tales are played by Chinese and Malaysian actresses. This wouldn't be much of a problem if the film-makers hadn't decided to put most (but rather oddly, not all) of the dialogue in the film in English, then insist that the cast speak with Japanese accents. This is easier for the Japanese actors, obviously, but considering the people with the vast majority of the screen times and lines are already appearing in their first English-speaking roles (the regal Michelle Yeoh being the exception), the film struggles with thickly-accented, stilted dialogue. Zhang Ziyi, who plays the grown up Chiyo (now renamed Sayuri), previously lit up the screen with her terrific performance in Wong Kar Wai's 2046; while she looks the part in Geisha, and does her best with the lines, her tremendous natural fluency is entirely absent. Gong Li shines as pantomime villain Hatsumomo, enfant terrible of the okiya, but once she leaves the story the film loses one of the only reasons for retaining your interest.

While the costumes, hair and makeup are impressive (consider those Oscars in the bag), I'd hoped for more in terms of grand spectacle. The 30's Kyoto in which the film takes place was constructed in a back-lot in California, and while there is tremendous attention to detail throughout, the film never takes a step back and allows the audience to see everything in sweeping perspective; the city sets are dark and claustrophobic, and the moments in the countryside are shot around admittedly beautiful blossom – but the panoramic vistas number very few. Contrast this with Jarhead, which made an empty desert look spectacular. Shooting everything in close-up might have worked for Marshall in the stage-show Chicago, but it's a disappointment here.

The plot of the film is the standard three-act construction; first young Chiyo (the wonderfully-cast Suzuka Ohgo) suffers as a child; then she becomes Sayuri, queen of the Gion geisha; finally, after the brief interruption of the Second World War, she attempts to gain the love of her childhood sweetheart at last. The love story, so much the centre of most Hollywood fare, is in truth a little creepy here; Chiyo meets a businessman (enigmatically referred to throughout as "the Chairman") as a child who cheers her up and buys her an ice cream, and twenty years later she's still obsessing over him. It's a good thing he hasn't aged a day in the meantime. The rest of the plot carries about as much emotional substance as an episode of Hollyoaks.

Memoirs of a Geisha is still a remarkable film, but not for the reasons I'd hoped. Running to nearly two and a half hours, the film feels jaded by the meandering final stretch. While the overall plot of the book remains largely intact, such chunks are missing as to make parts of it rather difficult to follow; if you were wondering exactly what a geisha is, you'd be better off reading the novel than watching the film, which gives a cursory explanation at around the hour mark. In fact, scratch that – you'd be better off reading a textbook on geisha if you really wanted to know. This film will only ever be Hollywood's imagined approximation of the "artists of the floating world".

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Length: 145 minutes
Certificate: 12A
Official Site:
IMDB Link:
Release Date: 13th January 2006

Top Five Rating: 50.0%50.0%50.0%50.0%50.0%50.0%50.0%50.0%50.0%50.0% (50.0%)
User Rating: 75.0%75.0%75.0%75.0%75.0%75.0%75.0%75.0%75.0%75.0% (75.0%)

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