MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA attempts to take the admittedly addicting soap opera that was the book and elevate into something on a higher plane of artistic existence. It fails. What was best about the book, an innocent girl caught up in the pure grasping evil of the geisha universe complete with all the nitpicky yet fascinating minutiae involved in the transformation of a mere woman into a living work of art, has been tossed aside for a dolled-up yet tragically mundane would-be potboiler of a romance that never quite reaches a simmer.
The innocent girl in question is Chiyo (Zhang Ziyi), known later by her geisha name of Sayuri. In properly melodramatic fashion she is ripped from her tumbledown home in a fishing village and deposited with little ceremony and less explanation into the geisha house that buys her. The head of it, known formally as mother, takes one look at Chiyo’s strange grey eyes, which are described throughout as the color of rain, and coldly pronounces that she has too much water nature. It’s a point that screenwriters Robin Swicord and Doug Wright latch onto, filling the screen during that portion of the film with rain, mud, and other assorted muck, making this interlude only slightly less damp than WATERWORLD.
Also in properly melodramatic fashion, she has an arch nemesis, Hatsumomo, played by the otherwise divine Gong Li, who staggers through the film in an almost perpetual state of very ungeisha-like disarray. Hatsumomo takes one look at the little girl and sets about to make her life a painful living hell. A chance meeting with someone known only as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) sets her heart aflutter and changes her from a rebellious little girl planning an escape from the confines of her involuntary servitude into a serious student of the geisha arts under the tutelage of the enigmatic Mameko (Michelle Yeoh) all in the hopes of running into him again.
It plays just about as vibrantly as it sounds. Rob Marshall, who did a whiz-bang job directing CHICAGO seems to be biding his time until the big production number begins. The dialogue, purple prose that cries out to become the camp it emulates, is delivered with all the passion of a stifled yawn, even when the inevitable catfight begins. It’s a matter made all the worse when the actors, all of them speaking with an accent, are sometimes unintelligible. The sets have the right feel for a big splashy musical, but the closest it comes is a sort of performance art piece in which Chiyo, now Sayuri, attempts to save her geisha reputation by miming being caught in a violent snow storm in platform sandals that appear to be a quarter of her height.
As for Sayuri’s dreams of romance with The Chairman, there are what can only be described as a series of unfortunate events that get in the way, including World War II. And while the devastation to Japan as a result is hinted at, the biggest tragedy according to the film is that Sayuri ruined her hands with manual labor when the geisha market tanked during the war-related privations. Would The Chairman ever notice her again? Will she be able to don the kimono again and save Japan by attracting foreign investments with a demure come-hither look at the right Occidental? If only anyone cared.
But that’s not the worst of it. Aside from all its other faults, this flick feels about as authentically Asian as a dish of chop suey followed by a fortune cookie, either of which would nonetheless be more engaging than MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA.