These are Memoirs of a visual Kind!
However, the movie manages to not be all that great. Why that is might not be the easiest question to answer. The acting is all around pretty good, the directing (by Rob Marshall) could be a lot worse, and the story in and of itself is a good idea. With all that going for it, perhaps the EIGHT producers (led by none other than Steven Spielberg) figured they'd passed the test based on the essay questions alone, then skipped out to smoke pot behind the gym with that big guy from Shop! There are just too many illogical moments, big gaps in time and underdeveloped characters to truly make this movie as great as it could have been. On the plus side Zhang Ziyi is the star, and I'd watch her in one of those "Art Instruction Schools" promotional commercials.
In pre-World War II Japan a beautiful, but impoverished young girl named Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is sold into the services of a Geisha House. She promises to find her older sister, but is enslaved by the Wicked Step Sister-like Geisha there. However, when the most striking feature of this child is noticed (her bright blue eyes) by the heads of the house (Kaori Momoi's "Mother" and Tsai Chin's "Auntie") she is selected to become Geisha. And then she isn't. And then she is again. Along the way she is once bought a snow-cone by a handsome adult stranger, the only person to truly show her kindness, and she vows and prays to be "with" him one day.
As stretched as that premise may seem, I'll grant that it gets less creepy once we jump forward a few years and Chiyo's part is taken over by the mind-blowing Ziyi Zhang! Through a series of domino events Chiyo comes across her man again, and learns that he is The Chairman (Ken Watanabe). Soon Chiyo is taken under the wing of the famed Geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and is taught the ways of the Force... I mean the Geisha... is given the name "Sayuri", and quickly becomes the most famous and sought-after Geisha in the land. All in the name of getting closer to the Chairman.
Good thing she didn't grow up to be a real Uggo, or else he'd be regretting that snow-cone, I'm betting!
The story progresses in an undeniably touching romance of two ships passing in the night. Chiyo never gives up her desire to find her man, even as the dark side of becoming a Geisha is revealed, and she discovers what she must do to become so sought after. The darkness and detached loneliness is personified in the form of the beautiful and deliciously wicked Hatsumomo (Li Gong, who scares me and turns me on at the same time)! But the world crumbles around not only her, but all of Japan as World War II overtakes the country and destroys the remnants of the Geisha life.
Memoirs of a Geisha does a wonderful job of showing the folly of the occupation of Japan and the influence of American soldiers upon the classically cultured Japan. It also shows how misconceptions about certain positions without true corollary in other countries can be misunderstood by the outsiders. The change in Chiyo is heartbreaking at least as much as her hope is uplifting, and Zhang is always incredible to watch in her delicate and sad perfection.
Sadly, there are too many gaps in the story for this film to truly be coherent. There are more blacked out portions in this screenplay than in George W. Bush's Air National Guard records. Such circular logic as Chiyo's need to become the most famous Geisha in the land by first becoming... the... most famous Geisha in the land simply begs for an explanation. I wish this were the only example of logical gravity sinks, but they're all over the place here. Many of the Geisha (and in fact others in the cast) are played by Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese, which gets no complaint from me (especially because Zhang Ziyi is Chinese), but might needle a few casting "purists". Finally, as I said, this would have worked so much better as a Japanese Language film (if such a thing were possible). The use of English with Japanese Accents feels a little odd at first, as do many of the subtitle-free "foreign" fare out there, however, this really hits the oddball-bone when the Americans show up speaking English with the Japanese perfectly. There are no asides in Japanese to suggest bilingualism, nor are there any variations in speech between the Japanese alone and the Japanese with the Americans. Sure this was intended to make this more marketable to the American public, but Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was hardly a flop either.
Make no mistake, though, with all its flaws, and there are many more, Geisha is a MUST see! The love story (though a little implausible and disturbing) is enchanting enough to make anyone with a rhythm behind the ribs want to see where it's going. The drama is interesting and the rivalries are intriguing. At times even this can be a downer (at one point I wondered how many bad things could happen to this kid in a row), but in general it works. A special mention must be made to the supporting cast, including Togo Igawa, Youki Kudoh, K˘ji Yakusho, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Elizabeth Sung and even Mako.
But the real reason to see Memoirs of a Geisha can be found in the visuals. There is so much perfection here it can bring a tear to your eye. The sights are almost equaled by the sounds here, and there are few movies in the world that can strike such a chord as this one. Enjoy the story, forgive the flaws and see and hear Memoirs of a Geisha as many times as possible... on IMAX if necessary, surrounded by speakers the size of the matterhorn if possible! Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Memoirs of a Geisha, the visually stunning and audio applause-worthy epic that could have stood a bit more polish. The beauty here is perfect and delicate, just like Japan. Listen for me in the next reel... I'm going to go buy the sound track, then paint my face again. One day soon I will be known as the greatest Onnagata in Orange County, California... but first, I must become the most famous Onnagata in Orange County, California!
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