Playing Catch Up With Chinese Geisha?

Posted by Dan Friday, June 23, 2006

I try to stay fairly current with these movie reviews, but sometimes for one reason or another, one slips through the cracks. My wife and I went to see Memoirs of a Geisha when it first came out in theaters. She had read the book and was anxious to see how it translated, and I had liked Dion Beebe's cinematography on Chicago. Even though I hated Chicago's directing and editing, I was still willing to give Memoirs of a Geisha a go. There is also the fact that I will suffer through some seriously mind-frying, time-wasting crap for Michelle Yeoh.

So we went to see it and I liked it well enough, but I had some issues with it that I wanted to write about. The problem was that I was having trouble putting into words what was wrong. Like any writing that gives me fits, I shelved it. Sometimes it's best to let things simmer on a back burner for a while.

Several months later, Memoirs of a Geisha was released on DVD and I got the chance to watch it again.Finally, I figured out what I'd wanted to say in the first place.

Memoirs of a Geisha is the epitome of what Michael Crichton likes to call "faux zen", all style and no substance. Much like with his first movie Chicago, Rob Marshall has assembled an excellent cinematographer, a mediochre scriptwriter, and a phenomenal cast to tell an interesting story... badly.

Dion Beebe's images are phenomenal. All wet, flowing silk, juxtaposed with a fair representation of 1930's Japan, the cinematography is worth the price of admission in and of itself. Robin Swicord's scriptwriting, however is scattered in its pacing, and replete with hokey dialogue that sounds more than a bit improbable coming out of the mouths of these actors.

Then there's the actors. I mostly got over the fact that most of them aren't Japanese, shortly after I figured out that Arthur Golden, the writer of the source material, wasn't Japanese either. Besides, I really like Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Li Gong, Kaori Momoi and Kenneth Tsang, and Michelle Yeoh is, well... Michelle Yeoh. Together, these actors read like a who's who of Chinese cinema. In point of fact, the only primary who is actually Japanese is Youki Kudoh who masterfully plays the traitorous Geisha, Pumpkin. It's a bit academic that none of these actors are Japanese, but it is distracting that few of them actually look Japanese either. However, I did suspend my disbelief long enough to buy Charlton Heston as a Mexican narcotics officer in Touch of Evil, could I afford Ken Watanabe any less?

What is not academic though, is that none of these actors were asked to speak Japanese. I submit that every single one of them is capable of it, and it would have lent the movie a much needed air of authenticity. Robin Swicord's horribly choppy dialogue might have been smoothed over by a decent enough Japanese translator. My other big gripe is that none of the actresses really even try to act like Japanese women. If you've ever seen a Geisha show (either live or on film) the first thing you notice about them is a certain stylized fluidity and an absolute precision to every movement. This is a fact of the Geisha entertainer (even the ones practicing the diluted artform we have today) that seems to be utterly lost on everyone, except for Michelle Yeoh who at least tries.

The end result of all this mess is a movie that is big and beautiful with no ring of truth or even a hint of any deep feeling. What should have been a faithful representation of a bygone time, and a lamentation for a dying artform, seems more like a big, noisy, Gaijin interpretation of what we consider to be an interesting bit of Japanese esoterica.

Memoirs of a Geisha picks up an ancient and venerated artform, something as important to world culture as ballet or Kabuki or Shakespearean acting, and plants it firmly in the realm of pop culture. As much as I love the culture of pop, this just makes me sad. It's almost as if Rob Marshall, Robin Swicord and Arthur Golden have unintentionally reinforced the stereotype of the "ugly American" who cannot respect or understand what other cultures have to offer. It's almost comically ironic that this same stereotyped idiot is played so adeptly by Ted Lavine at the end of the movie.

In the final summation, I do recomment Memoirs of a Geisha. It does what it's supposed to, it entertains. But go into it expecting nothing more, and you should come out of it relatively unscathed, if a bit annoyed.


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Im an essayist, critic, online blogger, short story writer and to borrow a descriptor from Peter David, "Writer of stuff." I love all things pop culture related: Music, Movies, Comics, Books, Politics... if you can label it I probably have an opinion about it, and I love to argue. All informed opinions are welcome here.
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