Directed by: Rob Marshall
Premise: The story of Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), a young woman who becomes one of the most celebrated geishas in pre-World War II Japan.
What Works: This is a very impressive looking film. It attempts to capture the culture of pre-World War II Japan and the role of women in this society and for the most part it succeeds. There are some strong performances including Michelle Yeoh as a geisha instructor and Youki Kudoh as a fellow geisha. Li Gong gives an especially strong performance as Hatsumomo, a competitive geisha who plots against Sayuri. Her performance reveals the poisonous element of the geisha lifestyle and subculture but she brings a complexity to the role that elevates it above a simplistic or superficial villain.
What Doesn’t: The last act of the film is troubling. When the Americans arrive in Japan and the traditional geisha culture is destroyed, the change and the cost of that change are not qualified on screen. Most of the film is spent enclosed inside the geisha culture and does not spend its time with the outside world, so there is not much contrast. The love story between Sayuri and the Chairman (Ken Wantanabe) does not work very well because it is not clear that the love is mutual and the element of desire is missing.
Bottom Line: Memoirs of a Geisha is a troubled film but it earns an A for effort. Where it does succeed, the film is able to reach some interesting insights into a subculture that is now defunct and into the pressures put upon women to appease male desires. The film laudably tells the story without falling into exotic Asian stereotypes.
Episode: #79 (January 1, 2006)