“…an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.”
— The Age of Innocence
I couldn’t help but think of Edith Wharton’s witty summary of 19th century opera society as I watched Memoirs of a Geisha. Hollywood’s oriental-chic movie of the year is based on a novel narrated by a Japanese geisha, but written by an American man. The movie has been produced by the Japanese-owned American studio Columbia Pictures, directed by a Broadway theatre hack and stars three Hong Kong actresses (ok, Michelle Yeoh originally hails from Malaysia) as Japanese women… speaking English… with Cantonese accents. That’s globalisation for you.
The story is fairly familiar. After the death of their mother, young Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister Satsu (Samantha Futerman) are taken from their rural home to the Gion district of Kyoto. Chiyo is sold to a geisha house, and it is suggested that the less comely Satsu is sold into prostitution. We follow Chiyo as she grows up to resemble Zhang Ziyi and changes her name to Sayuri. Under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), she ultimately grows into Gion’s foremost geisha, much to the chagrin of mortal enemy Hatsumomo (Gong Li).
I would like to report, before this undoubtedly cynical audience of proper Asian cinema freaks, that the movie is as much of an unqualified piece of crap as it should be, but unfortunately it’s not all that bad. Of course it retains the novel’s infamously inaccurate portrayal of geisha life (particularly the sensationalistic prominence in the story of mizuage, the auctioning of a geisha’s virginity, which was all but unheard of in the time and place the movie is set) and an ending that is signposted in neon from about one-fifth of the way in.
But really, this is a better than average middlebrow Hollywood chick flick, sure to please girlfriends and grandmothers the world over. It’s as easy to consume as a McDonald’s cheeseburger, and just as delicious and instantly forgettable. All the girls and Ken Watanabe are gorgeous and revel in their roles with the delight of actors working for the biggest pay-cheques of their careers. Gong Li in particular chews big chunks of the always beautiful scenery as the bad girl, spitting every word like a poison dart and somehow making kimonos look like raunchy lingerie.
The best news, however, is the gobsmacking work of Australian Dion Beebe, almost certainly the most talented up-and-coming cinematographer in Hollywood today. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Beebe resolved to shoot the movie without the help of artificial lighting, and commissioned Panavision to build him the fastest anamorphic lenses ever made. The result is a breathtakingly beautiful film, characterised by dim, painterly compositions with such narrow depth of field that the actors often seem frozen like mimes. Fortunately, given that these are characters for whom stillness is a way of life, this is a good thing.
I feel as though I’m gushing a little too much over what is really a very average movie, so be warned: it’s really a very average movie. Having said that, the visuals alone make it a must-see for cinematic aesthetes, and it’s probably a good guilty pleasure for a lot of others as well. So if you feel like shedding your film-going credibility for a couple of hours and wallowing in some sweet tasting crap, you could do a lot worse than Memoirs of a Geisha.