U.S. Release Date: December 9, 2005
Distributor: Sony / Columbia
Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: Robin Swicord, Doug Wright, Akiva Goldsman
Producer: Gary Barber (executive), Roger Birnbaum (executive), Bobby Cohen (executive), Lucy Fisher, Steven Spielberg, Patricia Whitcher (executive), Douglas Wick
Composer: John Williams
Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li
Running Time: 2 hours and 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (mature subject matter and some sexual content)

Japanese Subculture Lost in Translation
by Scott Holleran

After an inviting introduction, with two Japanese sisters cruelly sold by their father into slavery, director Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha slips into a slumber from which it never recovers. This long-awaited adaptation of Arthur Golden's 1997 novel is a yawner—too in awe of the Geisha subculture to translate the tragic tale of a lone survivor.

The sisters are transported to the city to begin living as part of the mysterious Geisha girls, those impeccably mannered practitioners whose charms hold such allure. Each sister is sold separately, with one rejected by the Geisha house, leaving the narrator—later known as Sayuri—stranded, at the mercy of an abusive house mother and a venomous rival.

Involving for the first half, we are acclimated to the exotic underworld of arts and rituals, with pale women wearing special kimonos, jet-black wigs and ruby-red lips and learning how to play music while being coached in how to be submissive, high-class prostitutes—and, while there's something like a bidding process to make it seem civilized, that's what they are. As Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) grows, meeting a man she yearns to love for life, known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), she is unofficially adopted by a mentor (Michelle Yeoh) who polishes her into a true Geisha. It's Sayuri's Cinderella story, and we're cheering her on.

But, with petty Geisha politics and neither Sayuri nor the Chairman advancing their own interests—following tradition for the sake of tradition—the epic grows tiresome. The rewards of seeing Sayuri's transformation, which happens too quickly, are diminished by the smallness of the situation. A backstabbing Geisha, played by Gong Li, overshadows Sayuri's narrative, which never sufficiently reasserts itself.

The supposedly aching love between the Chairman and Sayuri barely registers, too. Neither of them seems interested in anything but bolstering their own social positions, sacrificing their love, and it doesn't help that Sayuri's core motivation for attaining a place beside the Chairman is based on an encounter as a child—reminding us that she's been robbed of a childhood. Admittedly, making a child sold into sex slavery into a triumph of the spirit is not easily accomplished, and Marshall, who directed Chicago, tries very hard.

Culminating with World War 2, which scatters everyone—including best friend Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) and a disfigured suitor (excellent Koji Yakusho, the leading man in the Japanese original Shall We Dance)—across Japan, it plays like a rarefied soap opera, decked in Dion Beebe's gorgeous tobacco-stained photography. There's even a hokey let's-get-the-old-Geisha-gang-back-in-action after the war.

Zhang is fine in the lead, though Marshall errs in making her character's signature dance a strange mixture of modern and Kabuki in what's supposed to be her Geisha prime, and Sayuri is too timid to sustain interest. The most consistent character is Pumpkin, the only person who wants something and goes for it.

In the novel, Sayuri instructs: "My world is as forbidden as it is fragile; without its mysteries, it cannot survive." With its mysteries revealed, neither can it enrapture the senses, as it is evidently designed to do.

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DVD Notes
Director Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha is given the works in a special edition two-disc widescreen edition, with Marshall contributing commentary, joined by co-producer John DeLuca, and another audio track with a trio of the picture's most noted artists: costume designer Colleen Atwood, editor Pietro Scalia and production designer John Myhre. Thankfully, none of them takes the movie's detractors, advocates of race-based casting, seriously.

Instead, they focus on the movie, examined here in practically every aspect. With English and French subtitles, eleven features—from wardrobe and make-up to John Williams' score and something called Geisha boot camp—it is still visually striking yet curiously empty. Mastered in high definition.

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