The first sign of trouble for Memoirs of a Geisha was the much reported hullabaloo over director Rob Marshall's decision to cast a slew of Chinese and Malaysian hotties to play the Japanese geishas in his film adaptation of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel.
The notion of national interchangeability irritates people who like to believe we have moved past the old-timey Hollywood where Caucasians in dark makeup used to play Native Americans and white guys in blackface were considered a laugh riot. But ethnically blind casting is the least of Marshall's problems.
It may have been ambition rather than obliviousness that motivated the Chicago director. Marshall's infusion of Chinese actresses may just be his attempt to evoke the lush, color-drenched ambiance of Chinese art cinema like Yimou Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern and Kaige Chen's Farewell My Concubine. There are scenes of kimonos flapping in the wind, and of a little girl running through an orange hallway that suggest Marshall harbors delusions of aesthetic grandeur. Unfortunately, in Memoirs of a Geisha, Marshall keeps getting tripped up in a more Thornbirds form of dramatic hysteria.
Memoirs of a Geisha is the tale of a poor fisherman's daughter (House of Flying Daggers' Ziyi Zhang), who rises from lowly servant to geisha diva when she is sold into a Kyoto geisha house, or okiya.
Marshall's glamorized take on sexual slavery imagines Sayuri as a kind of rice-powdered Pretty Woman anxious to learn the art of walking on high heels and pleasing a man so she can win the love of the rich man she met as a little girl, the Chairman (Ken Watanabe).
Sayuri is adopted and taught the tricks of the trade by master coquette Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and transformed into a geisha-to-be-reckoned-with. Miss Thing becomes the toast of Kyoto. But she has an enemy, rival geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li) that she'll have to claw past first to become the top geisha in town.
Like the battling she-devils of Chicago, Sayuri and Hatsumomo have the kind of hair-pulling rivalry more typical of women-in-prison films and dramas set in American high schools. The ultimate Mean Girls, the geishas are prone to arson, drag-out girl fights and trash-talking about the other geisha's sex life.
When Marshall's geishas don't get their way, contrary to the myth of submissive china dolls hiding behind their fans, they get medieval on somebody's ass.
As Marshall demonstrated in Chicago he has a thing for sexy, trouble-making women and theatrical lighting. A dance number in Geisha where Sayuri entices every codger in the city to bid on the privilege of deflowering the virgin geisha features fake snowfall, a dramatic blood red light and Sayuri in ankle-breaking wooden sandals. It looks like a Flashdance outtake. We know dance is former choreographer Marshall's thing, but it may not work in every film.
Marshall's preference for sultry babes behaving badly, round two, feels like a template. Memoirs of a Geisha becomes more and more dispiriting as it moves along, weighed down by the grandiosity of its historical sweep as it finds the geishas out of their makeup and caught up in the tumult of World War II.
Memoirs of a Geisha is ultimately just another fluffy love story in which Sayuri's desire to be loved by the Chairman becomes her life's ambition.
Despite its strong cast of Asian cinema divas, Geisha feels like a botched opportunity. The film never achieves the vibe it's aiming for, of a female-centric tale of Dickensian struggle for self-determination. Marshall has instead crafted a mildly smarmy, heavy-breathing fantasy about some super-hot babes knocking each other down to get to the man meat while ignoring the fact that they are essentially sex slaves.
Sounds like someone else's fantasy entirely.
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