Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Koji Yakusho, Kaori Momoi, Youki Kudoh, Li Gong
Director: Rob Marshall
MEMOIRS of a Geisha is a most beautiful film to watch.
The colour photography by Australian Dion Beebe (who also shot director Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning Chicago) is a continual delight.
The lavish sets and costumes re-creating 1930s Japan are exquisitely shot, immersing the audience in this almost hermetically sealed world of the geishas which was to be suddenly destroyed by World War II.
Based on the novel by Arthur Golden, the screenplay by Robin Swicord (Little Women) takes us through the life of a young girl from a fishing village who is sold by her needy parents to the manager of a geisha house.
The audience shares the apprehensions of this nine-year-old, her desperation, her entrapment in this world, her mistakes and working as a slave for the owner.
When a kindly chairman of an electricity company buys her a strawberry ice, her life is changed and she submits to the geisha training and, under the tutelage of the most famous geisha in the town, she becomes her successor.
Life is never easy with her hard taskmasters but she also suffers the jealousy of the passionate and cruel geisha who is doomed to quick success and self-destruction.
The screenplay explains that geishas are not courtesans or wives, that they do not sell their bodies (although there is a custom for a patron to purchase the young geisha’s virginity), but that they are works of art in life with their manners, conversation skills, graceful movement, song and elegant dance.
Audiences do hear random broadcasts on the soundtrack about Hitler and Germany but there is little to indicate reasons for Japan’s entry into the war, although the chairman and his associate have fought in Manchuria.
When the war does come, it means the end of the geisha world, the world of entertainment for men in high places, men in arranged marriages, who rely on the geishas for company and entertainment.
The portrait of the occupying Americans at the end of the war is quite jolting, a crass group of liberators whose manners, jitterbugging and crude touristic commercialism is in rude contrast to the beauty and elegance of the geisha world.
The cast is excellent with three of China’s leading actresses most persuasive as the leads. Ziyi Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is a charming and vulnerable lead, Sayuri.
Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is the dignified Mameha, the geisha who coaches Sayuri.
Li Gong (who made such an impact in such 90s films as Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qui Ju) is the spiteful Hatsumomo.
An intelligent, visual and historical immersion in a different world.