Tuesday, January 24, 2006

"Memoirs of a Geisha" Review

Memoirs turns out to be a typical Hollywood production with a single difference. Except for the appearance of American soldiers during World War II, for the first time, an entire cast is made up of East Asian actors. Memoirs details the secret world of the Geisha, an old-world Japanese artist cum companion, through the journey of Sayuri, who as a child, was sold to a Japanese geisha house. Adapted from Arthur Golden's best-selling novel, we witness her sacrifices and the struggle of Sayuri's forbidden love for the Chairman amidst her obligations to her mentors, the envy of competition and the fantasy world a Geisha must construct.

As many, which may secretly include Arthur Golden himself, feel, Memoirs should really have been a film in Japanese. For one thing, one is easily impressed by foreign films. It's just a posh and arty thing, ya know, to be a foreign film connoiseur. Ok seriously, being in Japanese would perhaps lend more soul and character to this disappointing movie. It is hugely strange to hear stilted English and then the Japanese mizuage, danna, okiya and konichiwa gets thrown into the dialogue. A movie is of course, part make-belief, but it was a bit too much to swallow and quite distracting, not to mention slightly contrived. If you think this movie is all about Geisha, you are wrong-neh! It's all about accents, accents, accents. The distracting accents, which unfortunately differ between the three leads, make it hard for the Heiress to appreciate the movie's theme nor not giggle.

Sayuri, played by Zhang Ziyi (or is that Ziyi Zhang?), glides through the movie in a distinct Chinese accent rather than a Japanese one. You may argue that it is just an accent, but the Heiress thinks it is undermining the entire feel of the movie. Perhaps she should have spent more time under a language coach to perfect the Japanese accent. After all, if you want to make a movie based in Japan and about a Japanese icon, but you choose for it to be in Japanese-accented English, do the entire thing well! Compared to her previous feisty roles, Zhang's screen magnetism here seems to be her weakest. The perfectly-cast Gong Li, who plays the vicious Hatsumomo, fares better in her dialogues, but I am sure many were expecting the acclaimed actress to do so. Meanwhile bilingual Michelle Yeoh, who plays the kind mentor Mameha, appears to be the character who secretly took English lessons, perhaps from the first British Council in Japan. Yes, Mameha speaks near perfect English in this movie. Confused yet? Distracting-neh!

Two characters impress the Heiress; Hatsumomo and the Mother, played by Kaori Momoi. What else is there to say about the beautiful Gong Li? The acclaimed Chinese actress, with her killer cheekbones, steals every scene and it will be hard for you to take your eyes off her, unless of course, you are the horny NS-man who most likely favours Zhang more. The experienced Momoi also delivers and plays the opportunistic and shrewd Mother perfectly, without making the character purely one-dimensional.

Director Rob Marshall seems to concentrate more on giving the audience painted visuals and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a Geisha's training, kimonos and make-up. It leaves you with a decent knowledge of the Geisha's world, but it is a one-dimensional effort which fails to fully stir the audience's empathy or flesh out Sayuri's story, nor make it engrossing. That was disappointing, for Memoirs has potential but is unfortunately let down by the lack of soul. The Heiress would love for another director to attempt the engaging story in Japanese though.

Of course, one can argue that a movie adaptation has its limits. True. Marshall remembered the kimonos, the makeup, the Kyoto scenery, the soundtrack and the Geisha's performances, but he forgot a basic, essential detail. Look at Sayuri's eyes in the movie. In the book, the protagonist described her eyes as translucent gray. Her eyes in the movie's many shots are more blue-eyed Barbie, than gray-blue! Sayuri's eyes are part of Sayuri's appeal and magic and is a crucial element of the story. If your portrayal of her eyes are inaccurate, the movie risks being a mediocre effort.

The Heiress gives it a 3 out of 5 Kimonos.

Most poignant moment: When Sayuri gazes at the figure of the disgraced Hatsumomo leaving the okiya and ponders whether they were so different after all.

Most endearing performance: The young Sayuri or Chiyo, played by Suzuka Ohgo."It's not a movie...it's a fashion show!"-- Sean Burns, PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY

"An epic romantic period piece with deeply felt performances, beautiful costumes and exquisitely framed sets, Geisha pretty much defines the phrase "Oscar contender.""-- Kit Bowen, HOLLYWOOD.COM

"In essence Chicago comes closer to capturing that life of artists and performance; Memoirs is just whoring for a little prestige known as the Oscars."-- Erik Childress, EFILMCRITIC.COM

"Geisha offers a colorful glimpse that is as alien to most Western audiences as the dark side of the moon."-- Bob Bloom, JOURNAL AND COURIER (LAFAYETTE, IN)

"Ziyi is radiant, as real as the script allows -- just not Japanese. Sweetly shot overall, though a dismal mood dominates. Otherwise somewhat simple and soapy."-- Ross Anthony, HOLLYWOOD REPORT CARD

The Heiress also has several serious questions to throw.
Qn: During the scene where Sayuri throws the Chairman's handkerchief into the wind, how the hell did the kimono-ed girl climb up the hill ?
Qn: There was a scene where Sayuri did her hair as an apprentice Geisha. How come her hairdresser wasn't the delectable David Gan?
Qn: Why did Fann Wong's agent not contact the producers for a role? After all, the fair Caldecott princess who is the dodgiest celeb when it comes to her private life, fits the painted fantasy and shadowy world of the Geisha, no?
Qn: Why did we not see a SKII product placement by the geishas?

Lastly, it is very funny that I can detect an American accent from Pumpkin, when she became a prostitute during the American occupation. Prior to that, Pumpkin has the perfect Japanese accent. Really, have we found the first SPG? If so, stay tuned for the next engaging best-selling novel, possibly attempted by the Heiress and titled....

Memoirs of an SPG.

(grabbed from London Hyatt blog "G" http://londonhyatt.blogspot.com/

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