Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha is sometimes terribly beautiful ' and always terribly boring.
When the Golden Globe nominations were announced in mid-December, it was hard to believe that Memoirs of a Geisha only scored two: a best dramatic actress nod for Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and a best score nomination for John Williams. The film had not yet entered wide release, but the lush previews and director Rob Marshall's tantalizing track record (Chicago) certainly made Geisha seem a perfect companion for Oscar. (The Globes are usually a sterling indicator of whom the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will favor.)
Turns out, however, that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Globe's governing body, has managed to get it right once again, despite the group's notoriously bizarre politics and strong personalities. This film got exactly what it deserved. Geisha has all of the trappings of an award-winning film, but none of the heart. It's pretty, in a static, storyboard sort of way. It's well-acted, in a distant, understated sort of way. But when a movie preview ' that most unsubtle art form ' seems more interestingly directed and edited than the actual film itself, that's a major problem. And it's a problem that's only compounded by a torpid, tedious script culled from Arthur Golden's entirely overrated novel.
Geisha tells the story of Nitta Sayuri, one of Japan's most celebrated geisha, a willful woman who rose to her rarified status from humble, fishing-village beginnings. Sold to an okia (a combination of indentured servitude and finishing school) by her poor parents, young Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is separated from her sister and put to work by her new owner, Mother (Kaori Momoi), in the service of the cruel and selfish Hatsumomo (Li Gong). Hatsumomo is a much sought-after geisha, and in young Chiyo, she sees future competition. That, of course, leads to trouble ' trouble enough that Chiyo finds herself off the geisha fast track and facing a lifetime of hauling water, folding kimonos and carrying Hatsumomo's umbrella. One day, the downcast child encounters a kind man in town, and from that day on, this man, the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), is her heart's desire. She decides to do whatever she must to meet him again. Apparently, the thin, fleeting encounter makes a much deeper impression on the young girl than it does on any of us.
Inter-okia politics soon surface, as Hatsumomo rival Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) sees Chiyo's potential and strikes a deal, agreeing to take the young girl as her protege and promising an irresistibly hefty sum within six month's of Chiyo's geisha debut. What follows is a crash course in the geisha arts, lots of plotting and scheming, complicated encounters with the Chairman, a little maneuvering for prime placement in Mother's last will and testament, blah, blah, blah. What feels like several lifetimes later, Chiyo, now christened Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), finally triumphs to become the most celebrated geisha of her day, only to have a world war break out and ruin everything. As her way of life begins to fade in the harsh sun of modernity, Sayuri finds herself pressed into service one last time by the man she has secretly loved her entire life, this time to smooth the way for a post-war American rebuilding contract. Will the melodrama never end?
The notion of a geisha as an artist who makes herself the ultimate masterpiece is the film's (and the novel's) finest offering. Golden sought to distance geishas in the Western mind from courtesans and prostitutes, a delicate distinction that screenwriters Robin Swicord and Doug Wright leave intact. Perhaps the problem is that director Rob Marshall is too enamored of this idea of woman as art to breathe any lasting life into the story of the woman underneath the paint. Marshall's direction shows none of the vigor or depth of Chicago's truly intelligent design. In that film, he imagined a carnival of ingenious shot composition and framing. Here, his camera actively shuns any attempt to create a kind of kinetic chemistry, content simply to drink in the colors and craft of John Myhre's production design and Colleen Atwood's costumes. Marshall takes snapshots, but he doesn't make Geisha a motion picture.
The film was always going to suffer from what is fundamentally a silly story of star-crossed lovers interred under layers and layers of Golden's admittedly impressive anthropological and historical study. What Geisha fails to conjure is the sense of urgency that attends all passionate storytelling. Films can be stately, but they should never be this slow. Sadly, the lethargy at the heart of Geisha overshadows the film's finest performances. Watanabe's minimalist magnificence (first glimpsed in The Last Samurai) is squandered. And a quietly fierce Zhang emotes with the best of them, but like Sayuri, finds herself hopelessly trapped by the uncompromising artifice that's all around her.