"Memoirs Of A Geisha"
Dir: Rob Marshall

Patricia Ducey

Memoirs of a Geisha was directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) and written by Arthur Golden, from his novel of the same name, and scripted by Robin Swicord, veteran women’s film writer. Swicord is one of my favorite unsung heroes of Hollywood, penning sensitive scripts in movies like the under appreciated The Perez Family (directed by Mira Nair), as well as the best Little Women extant, her 1994 script adaptation. I confess to a weakness for Memoirs of a Geisha and its genre, the weepie, whether under its subsequent and more dignified appellation, the woman’s film, or even in its lumpen incarnation, the date flick. These films revel in the small but significant moments lived in the private sphere of home and heart versus the hurly-burly of life lived large in the public sphere. All the joys and vicissitudes of mortal existence play out in the parlor or the bedroom in the weepie; the best of them drape the exotica of manners, costume, food, and music on a structure of unrequited love or coming of age conflict that we recognize as somehow, almost, our own. The world outside remains a subject for another day or another movie.

Memoirs is, as they say, all that: In pre-war Japan, an impoverished fisherman sells his 9-year-old daughter Chiyo to a geisha house in bustling Kyoto. One day the weeping child catches the eye of a passing gentleman, The Chairman, who notices her sadness and comforts her. Chiyo vows to love him forever and to seek him out as soon as she is able. The little slave girl grows into a beauty and eventually is taken under the wing of Mameha, the rival of Hatsumomo, a vain head geisha and a cruel mistress to Chiyo. Inheritance of the geisha house is at stake, and Mameha vows to groom Chiyo to induce the aging owner to name her as heir. Chiyo’s later geisha debut as Sayuri culminates in a stunning visual and aural mixture of costume, music, dance and sentimentality. She and The Chairman share glances but, of course, little else—in the tradition of the weepie, many insurmountable obstacles doom their union, even with Sayuri as a mere “evening wife.”

Marshall has been criticized for uninspired direction, but Memoirs is a mainstream melodrama and love story. He and his cinematographer, Dion Beebe, envelope their soap operatic story in a lush and mesmerizing world of ritual beauty that is ruled, in the end, by love. Critics fault Memoirs also for cultural insensitivity, with Chinese actresses playing key Japanese roles: Ziyi Zhang (from Crouching Tiger) as Sayuri, Gong Li as her arch rival, and the venerable Michelle Yeoh as Mameha, her mentor and protector. But others point out that this controversy may be driven as much by inter-Asian social and political conflict as by clumsy filmmaking, also asking, if Western actors can portray a variety of ethnic roles, why not Asians? The book itself is contentious, with the geisha upon whom the book is based reportedly suing novelist Golden and later settling for an undisclosed sum.

Feminist film scholars have come to defend the ethos of the woman’s film and its questioning and valorizing of female experience. After all, is a soap opera any worse for society than, say, Saw II? In fact, Memoirs is no more literal than Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, yet Samurai was praised last year as “authentic” and “intelligent.” A diligent reading of credible history is demanded for any serious student of either bushido or geisha culture, but Memoirs in the end opens the door to a spectacle worthy of a big screen and a wide audience.

-- Patricia Ducey

Copyright Web del Sol, 2006

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