Memoirs of a Geisha
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir Rob Marshall
scr Robin Swicord, Doug Wright
with Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Suzuka Ohgo, Koji Yakusho, Youki Kudoh, Randall Duk Kim, Tsai Chin, Kenneth Tsang, Kaori Momoi, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
release US 9.Dec.05, UK 13.Jan.06
05/US Columbia 2h25

Take some advice, kid: Yeoh and Zhang

yeoh gong watanabe

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Memoirs of a Geisha Start by understanding that this isn't a factual rendition of Japanese history, then you can accept this film existing in a dream world as realistic as, say, Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands. As such, it's a sumptuous fantasy with a gripping, emotional story.

Chiyo (Ohgo) is a 9-year-old sold by her parents to a Kyoto geisha house. Her unusual beauty sparks vicious jealousy. But as she grows up (now Zhang), she's taken under the wing of prominent geisha Mameha (Yeoh), renamed Sayuri and prepared to challenge her spiteful "sister" Hatsumomo (Gong) as top geisha. Meanwhile, Sayuri courts potential sponsors--an industrialist (Yakusho), a doctor (Kim), a general (Tsang)--while pining for a businessman (Watanabe) who was kind to her as a child.

Arthur Golden's novel blends firsthand accounts, rumours and Western storytelling, so it's not surprising that the filmmakers didn't feel bound by authenticity. They go for broke, recreating mid-20th century Kyoto as a Japanese fairyland gorgeously drenched in inky shadows and glowing lanterns. Colleen Atwood's costumes are fabulous, and she admits they're drastically stylised. The make-up is far more natural than any geisha would wear, while the dancing and music are about 60 years ahead of their time.

And most notably the filmmakers cast prominent Chinese actresses in the principal roles. Zhang, Yeoh and Gong are staggeringly good, but their physicality is notably different from the Japanese, and they're required to perform in (broken) English. Which makes no sense at all, if you think about it. The fact that they're strong enough to overcome this disadvantage speaks volumes about their skills. And they're beautifully supported by sensitive, interesting acting from the men and women around them.

As a director, Marshall tells the story exceptionally well. Sayuri's odyssey is deeply involving, and leads to a superb conclusion. Marshall revels in these characters, drawing out their sparky diva-like behaviour and the way their world crumbles around them with the arrival of WWII. So even if it's exaggerated and improbable on every level, the film still manages to grab our eye with its spectacular artistry, and our heart with its simple tale of yearning.

cert 12 themes, violence, sexuality 8.Dec.05

R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... Memoirs of a Geisha Donna R Carter, Wisconsin: "I was drawn in by the acting, and the narration was gentle, not at all disrupting the flow of the story. I liked the fact that most of the actors were unknown to me. It was a believable, sad, beautiful, touching story - long, but not too long. I really loved how it ended: not the final scene, but her final words at the very, very end. It was the perfect ending." (9.Jan.06)

Peter Cheese, Berowra, Australia: 4/5 "loved the overall story, learned enough about the geisha side to do some more research. never realised the main actress was chinese. silly me! it had a great story line but brother was it tooooo long getting going! we need more stories with such powerful, human feelings, especially about other races and cultures. what about some on the muslims so we get to see their lives without the violence? we see enough of that." (5.Feb.06)

Bernard O'Connor, Rochester NY: 5/5 "I am a little upset writing this because I had just enjoyed this superb film and came online to read up on it. I was shocked to see that it was generally not well received. Ebert in particular was so off base in his take on the film that I honestly question his lucidity. So I came here to see what Cline had to say and was happier. Here is the truth about the movie. If you like the genre, it's a must see. Forget the technical stuff. This movie immerses you in it's world. It is totally absorbing. It is masterfully made. It's one of the best movies of the last year." (5.May.06)

2005 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall