In their great geisha dramas, Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi bring an unblinking focus to the everyday realities of being a working woman: Naruse’s Flowing (1956) is a crystalline portrayal of the okiya (geisha house) as a vanishing microcosm and a declining business. Arthur Golden’s 1997 Memoirs of a Geisha—an exhaustively researched novel masquerading as an insider’s tell-all—emphasizes exotic ritual: laborious face painting and masochistic hairdos, virginity auctions and patronage systems. The movie version of Golden’s bestseller, from the director of Chicago, comes up with a new angle: In this garish pageant of dragon-lady vamping and drag-queen catfights, the geisha experience is roughly akin to working the bar at Lucky Cheng’s.
Swaddled in the posh vulgarity that passes for awards-season elegance, Memoirs is deluxe orientalist kitsch, a would-be cross between Showgirls and Raise the Red Lantern, too dumb to cause offense though falling short of the oblivious abandon that could have vaulted it into high camp. While Golden’s book was praised as a persuasive feat of ventriloquist empathy, Rob Marshall’s movie is something of a lip-synch disaster: Chinese actresses play Japanese geisha (in a period concurrent with the Sino-Japanese war) and speak English the way Hollywood has always imagined Asians do, all stilted syntax and awkward enunciations (“You are! To become! Geisha!”). Golden coyly framed his novel as a translated autobiography, and the author invented for his stereotypical model of Eastern femininity an accordingly docile voice. The movie at least drops any pretense of authenticity, supplanting the whispery “Asianness” of Golden’s prose with the heavy breathing of a filmmaker who goes weak-kneed at the merest glimpse of silk brocade.
Against the color-coded tumult of flicked fans and twirled umbrellas, the slenderness and predictability of Golden’s fiction becomes painfully apparent. Drained of all anthropological value and incongruously imbued with Chicago‘s rancid showbiz cynicism, Memoirs is recast as an aspirational melodrama. Sold into an okiya in childhood, mysteriously blue-eyed Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), often shot through bars and slats in case we fail to grasp her caged condition, longs to escape servitude—to become! geisha!—which she does under the tutelage of the kindly Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and despite the vengeful plotting of the slatternly Hatsumomo (Gong Li). She also yearns, somewhat creepily, for true love with a generous big shot known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), whom she meets as a prepubescent. And in the scheme of this movie, which dispenses with pesky World War II in one or two sonorous voiceover lines, what Sayuri wants, Sayuri gets.
“What do we know about entertaining Americans?” one geisha asks another, rallying to put on a postwar show. It’s also Marshall’s foremost concern, of course, and as he can attest, Americans—or at least Academy
voters—are gluttons for that old razzle-dazzle. In this back-lot Kyoto, which seems to have been achieved by plopping down some pointy Asian roofs on the set of Chicago, something is always falling from the sky: rain, snow, and on special occasions, cherry blossoms. The overall aesthetic could be approximated by turning on a wind machine in a Chinatown souvenir emporium. With Marshall preoccupied picking out fabrics and lacquer veneers, the task of directing the actors seems to have fallen to the beleaguered dialect coach. To complement the clashing accents, Memoirs is a free-for-all of wildly divergent acting styles. Zhang’s phonetic struggles are the most (mis)pronounced, but she throws herself heartily into the film’s hilariously anachronistic big number, a splashy expressionist routine on platform clogs that would have cleaned up on So You Think You Can Dance?
The supporting actors, who include some of Asia’s biggest stars, mount savvier defense strategies. Poised as ever, Yeoh seems to be meditating as much as acting, creating a zone of Zen self-containment. In a quietly subversive turn, charismatic Koji Yakusho, despite sporting a decorously scarred cheek, makes rival suitor Nobu a more enticing romantic prospect than the Chairman. Best of all, Gong uncorks a broad, gestural performance that both captures the spirit of the movie and signals her superiority to it. Memoirs scans as round two in the battle of the Zhang Yimou leading ladies, carried over from 2046, and this bout also goes to Gong. Clad in chinchilla-fringed outfits and hurling sidelong death glares, Gong’s viperous Hatsumomo wipes the floor with Zhang’s cowering Sayuri: “I shall destroy you!” she hisses in the most Showgirls-like scene. What’s more, she doesn’t overstay her welcome. Hatsumomo’s dramatic exit seems to sum up Gong’s attitude toward the film: She torches the place and defiantly strides away from the smoldering wreckage.