A geisha is an intersection of many contradictions: purity vs. sensuality; independence vs. slavery; a beauty marked by mystery and a certain degree of aloofness. Rob Marshall’s new film, Memoirs of a Geisha (based on Arthur Golden’s bestseller) might be described in the same way. The film is beautiful and mysterious, yet it arrives in its onscreen incarnation with its purity in question.
The furor in the press over Marshall’s casting choices centered on his use of three famous Chinese actresses (Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li) to portray Japanese geishas. His defense has always been that he cast the best actresses for the parts -in other words, if the film ends up a masterpiece full of rich performances, will anyone care who played what parts? The controversy echoes the one surrounding the novel itself (i.e. how can a white man dare to write a first person narrative work of fiction about a Japanese woman?).
While none of these questions are answered easily, they do point to the central problem plaguing this film: that for all the fastidious dramaturgical attention to historical detail, the film still feels like an outsider?s view of a culture we never get to know intimately. The set design and costumes are lovely, yet never feel like anything other than sets and costumes. They are museum artifacts from a foreign world that we never get inside of. In many ways, the actors are working in this same cultural vacuum. Zhang, best known for kicking butt in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, is sweet and captivating as Sayuri, the title geisha. The trouble is that Robin Swicord?s script never fleshes out her character. She remains an observer throughout and since it is her story we are supposed to follow, we the audience become observers twice removed from the action. Ken Watanabe, who brought fire to The Last Samurai, functions here as a very friendly mannequin. He is the Prince to Zhang’s Cinderella. Yeoh, another Crouching Tiger alum, is warm and maternal, but that?s about it. China?s biggest star, Li, fares best in a supporting role as the monstrous Hatsumomo, Sayuri?s rival. Li seethes delicious evil and the film could have used more of the All About Eve conflict her character provides.
Yet even her performance, along with the competent ones of her costars is muted in Marshall’s overlong treatment of the story. At two and a half hours, the film drags on a good forty five minutes beyond its welcome. Marshall seems intent on showing us all the pretty trappings of 1940s Japan over and over and over again. The style-over-substance questions that most likely cost Marshall the best director Oscar for Chicago three years ago (it went to The Pianist’s Roman Polanski instead) are even more evident here. The film is like the geisha herself: pretty, well mannered, sometimes intriguing, but ultimately inscrutable – a beautiful porcelain mask that obscures the heart and soul lurking beneath.
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