BY KARYN KUBO LAMBORN
Examiner Film Editor
“Memoirs of a Geisha”
Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Koji Yakusho, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li
Rated PG-13, 137 min.strong>
One of the many dilemmas in bringing a popular novel to the screen is how much to edit. If you cut too much, it could invite criticism that the film is too different from the book. Leaving in as much as possible risks doing a disservice to the story and the characters.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” is a victim of the latter.
Arthur Golden’s popular 1997 novel tells the epic story of Chiyo, a pretty young girl with mesmerizing blue eyes. (“Too much water,” an older woman says of their unusual color). She’s taken from a fishing village and sold to the Nitta geisha house in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan in the years before World War II. Chiyo endures terrible treatment at the hands of the household’s head geisha, the beautiful but cruel Hatsumomo, before becoming the protégé of Mameha, the kindly geisha from a rival house. Under her guidance, Chiyo blossoms from maid to the premier geisha Sayuri. Through it all, Sayuri harbors secret feelings for the successful businessman she refers to only as “the Chairman.”
The film, to its detriment, tries to cover as much ground as the book. Chiyo’s early years in the geisha house with rival Hatsumomo (Gong Li) are the best part of the movie. Suzuka Ohgo, as the young Chiyo, is without a doubt the most compelling actress in the film, outshining her grown-up and better-known co-stars.
But the movie loses momentum when it shifts to the older Chiyo, soon to be Sayuri, played by Ziyi Zhang. It practically fast-forwards through her geisha training with Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), relationships with the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and his friend and colleague, Nobu (Koji Yakusho), World War II and post-war U.S.-occupied Japan, before ending abruptly with her romantic reunion with the Chairman.
In the book, Golden makes note of the fact that geishas are not prostitutes, but rather specialists trained in music, dance, singing and the art of conversation who earn their living entertaining powerful men. And though one part of geisha custom, mizuage, or the auctioning off of a geisha’s virginity, takes place in the original story, screenwriter Robin Swicord (“The Perez Family”) places undue emphasis on it in the movie. Swicord also injects a distasteful scene in which Sayuri seduces an American soldier— a scene I don’t remember from the book — that seems specifically designed to play into the Westerner’s misconception of geisha that Golden tried hard to dispel.
There’s a distinct lack of emotional depth to the characters and the story, especially in the latter half of the film. That may be attributed to the swift pacing by Swicord and director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”).
Or it may be because the film rests mainly on the kimono-clad shoulders of Ziyi Zhang. Her pretty but blank face and dancer’s flexibility are perfect for the martial arts films she’s become known for—“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “House of Flying Daggers”—though Zhang’s first real glimmer of acting talent was evident in “2046.” Perhaps being required to speak dialogue in English, a language she clearly has not mastered, stunted Zhang’s burgeoning growth as an actress. (She certainly is not the first foreign actor to encounter this difficulty — Penelope Cruz is a fine example, receiving accolades for her work in Pedro Almodovar films, while giving truly excruciating performances in nearly every American film she’s appeared in).
Despite wishing a Japanese actress had been cast as one of the three female leads, I thought Gong Li was excellent as Hatsumomo, Sayuri’s nemesis in the Nitta house, giving a glimpse into the heartbreak that fuels her cruelty. Former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh (“Tomorrow Never Dies,” and Zhang’s co-star in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) makes a graceful Mameha. The biggest wastes of talent are those of Ken Watanabe (“The Last Samurai”) and Japan’s leading actor, Koji Yakusho (“Shall We Dance”), though they make the most of what little screen time they’re given.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” is beautiful and glossy, but with no emotional center to keep it grounded; it just flows across the screen like the water in Chiyo’s blue eyes, veiled and expressionless.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” opens Friday, Dec. 23.