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Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005 07:36 am

Love for sale

This Geisha has the looks, but no life

Memoirs of a Geisha
More classic films were produced by the Hollywood studio system during the 1930s and ’40s than during any other period in cinema history, and though many of these movies seem quaint and naïve today, they had solid scripts as their foundation. Although I love discovering modern features that remind me of films from that bygone era, there are occasions when the style used then is simply inappropriate today. Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha is a prime example, enticing us with a peek at a hidden, exotic world, only to present it in a chaste, vague light that leaves viewers with far more questions than answers. The tale of Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is a tragic one that, in the right hands, would be a three-hankie weeper. Chiyo’s father sells her and her sister to Mother (Kaori Momoi), a bitter woman who runs a geisha house. Though she does Mother’s bidding and works night and day, Chiyo cannot seem to do anything to please her and, to make matters worse, gets on the bad side of Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the house’s prime earner. Unsure of what to do with her life of toil and strife, Chiyo responds to a simple act of kindness by the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), whom she encounters in the town square one day while running an errand. A dish of ice cream and a pittance of money earns the Chairman Chiyo’s undying devotion, and she decides to become a geisha as a means of entering his world. Oddly, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), the head of another geisha house, meets with Mother not long after Chiyo’s encounter with the Chairman to inquire about taking the girl in and giving her the proper training to become a geisha. Obviously Mameha has an ulterior motive, and she’s not the only one working behind the scenes to transform the girl Chiyo into the woman Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), who, on making her debut, threatens to usurp Hatsumomo’s power as the most popular geisha in Kyoto. One would think that such a plot-heavy movie would be consistently interesting and move at a brisk pace. Unfortunately, Marshall presents the tale with such a sterile tone of reverence that it comes off as a lifeless period piece. Many of the conflicts in the film are played out in broad strokes, resulting in needless melodrama that makes it hard for us to take Sayuri’s plight seriously. What should have been intriguing look at a fascinating era in Japanese history comes off as an overwrought romance that was out of style by the 1950s. Although Marshall has created a gorgeous film steeped in visual nostalgia, he drops the ball when it comes to delivering an emotional knockout punch during the film’s climax. Very little is made of the loss of tradition and social mores caused by World War II and the influx of Western culture in Japan.
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