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Sony Pictures

Official Site

Director: Rob Marshall

Producers: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Stephen Spielberg

Written by: Robin Swicord, Doug Wright; novel by Arthur Golden

Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe, Li Gong, Koji Yakusho, Youki Kudoh, Kaori Momoi


So, here’s the funny: Geisha is a book written by a white dude from Chattanooga (his first), adapted into a film by a white dude from Wisconsin (his second), and told from the first-person perspective of a Japanese woman, with Chinese and Malaysian actresses in the principal roles.

Un-funny: The picture is a shade under two-and-a-half hours long, and not very good.

(Less funny than that: The Chinese-and-Malaysian thing touched off a well-documented row in both Japan and China, stirring up old wounds between the two countries and punctuated by cries of Stateside pan-Asianism. I’ll say this: In a Hollywood where Jennifer Connelly and Winona Rider pass for Hispanic and Antonio Banderas can play Middle Eastern, ethnicity and box-office clout can make for… ahem… interesting casting decisions. Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; House of Flying Daggers), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Li Gong (Farewell, My Concubine) were presumably chosen for (relative) name recognition, cultural (in)sensitivity be buggered. Callous? Sure. It sucks. But the flip side is that acting is acting, regardless of studio machinations. (It’s not like Daniel Day-Lewis really has cerebral palsy.)

Rob (Chicago) Marshall’s Geisha, like Arthur Golden’s 1997 bestseller, spins the (fictional) tale of Sayuri, née Chiyo, who rose from the station of impoverished fishing-village denizen to that of the most glamorous and sought-after geisha in pre-World War II Japan. An improvement? That’s chiefly what you, the viewer, are left to mull. As the film opens, Sayuri (played as a child by Suzuka Ohgo, thereafter by Zhang) and her sister are sold off by their father to the notorious okiya, or geisha houses—which, he apparently believes, will provide better for the girls than can he and their seriously ailing mother. Not long after, she receives word that she’s officially orphaned, and that her sister has run away, never to be seen again. Her “family” now is her okiya, where she is beaten and bossed about by a money-hungry madam named Mother (Momoi) and habitually terrorized by embittered, sadistic geisha-in-residence Hatsumomo (Li). Yeah. Get used to it. It’s that kind of movie. Not since An American Tail has so innocent and so inexplicably English-speaking a character been so mercilessly and consistently put-upon by the world around her/him/it. Nonetheless, glimmers of purpose and hope manage to enter Sayuri’s world: As a child, she becomes enamored of “the Chairman” (Watanabe, The Last Samurai)—a businessman who, in a chance meeting, shows her kindness—and a lifelong obsession begins. Years later, when Kyoto’s reigning über-geisha Mameha (Yeoh) offers to train Sayuri, large looms the promise of a new life—a life, perhaps, closer to him.

Doesn’t sound all that bad, huh? A little “power of love,” a little “journey of self-discovery,” a little “Cinderella-avec-kimono.” Toss in words like “sweeping,” “sumptuously imagined,” or “epic romance,” and that’s what this was supposed to be, you can just feel it. Problem is, it’s flat. None of it seems inspired. The actors are very good, you can tell, and they’re trying, but too many are hampered too often by the fact that they’re not speaking their native languages. It just seems silly after a while, and was distracting enough to have me clamoring for subtitles, which is something of an oddity. Subtitles might also have aided the screenplay, which sounds scripted and painfully unnatural in spots. In most “epic romance”-type flicks, these sorts of nit-picky, realist jabs are brushed aside in favor of being caught up by the “magic”: lush cinematography, an evocative score, a heart-swelling dramatic arc. But Marshall’s Geisha doesn’t seem to put in the time there, either. It’s pretty at times, but not overwhelmingly so. Spielberg mainstay and master craftsman John Williams does the music, but it’s nothing that sticks with you. And the story is as predictable as they come. The result? Geisha drags. There’s generally a moment in most longer films when you realize that you’ve been sitting there for quite a while, and still have a ways to go, and you have to decide, in that moment: either that’s okay with you, or it isn’t. Here, said moment is palpable.

There are some good things, though. Li’s Hatsumomo, by far the most intriguing character, is truly tragic—beautiful, tortured, vain, and vicious, she commands attention and makes things, for a time, interesting. A distant second is Koji Yakusho’s Nobu, a repressed and physically scarred suitor who vies for Sayuri’s affections. Yeoh seems to have the least trouble with the language, and is effortlessly graceful and calming to watch. Though Zhang is an effective and sympathetic presence, her character and Watanabe’s are boring, unidimensional archetypes; neither possesses the sufficient flaws or personality to warrant much attachment. They do, however, nail it when they have to, in a brief but mesmerizing wordless exchange that closes the film. When loosed from a cumbersome script and allowed to simply emote, Zhang and Watanabe et al., show what they can do, and it’s frequently stunning—a sad indicator of what might’ve been.

But what’s enduringly troubling about Geisha is the effectiveness and clarity of its “message.” When Sayuri begins to break free of her okiya servitude, her consuming dream is not self-realization, but to be owned by the Chairman, to be “his,” whose name she doesn’t even know or use. Thing is, dude’s married, with kids—the best she can hope to be is his nighttime companion, and that’s what she aspires to. Now, it can be said that that’s the point—the tragedy of the geisha—but if so, why is the ending painted as a relative triumph? Also, if that’s truly the only lesson, that it sucked to be a glorified ’ho in 1940s Japan, then screw you, Rob Marshall, for taking 145 hackneyed minutes to tell me that. And that, I suppose, is the thing. There is little of note here, and it takes oh-so-long to deliver. Scan a plot synopsis, watch the trailer, and you’ve gotten all you’re really going to get. Or better yet, maybe, read the book.

—Brian Villalobos

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