Originally published in Northwest Asian Weekly, Dec. 24, 2005, as “A spectacle with little substance.”
Although I’d prefer to see Japanese actresses, rather than Chinese ones, in a movie set in 1930s Japan, and to have it filmed by a Japanese director rather than an American, I walked into Memoirs of a Geisha with an open mind, fully prepared to accept Rob Marshall’s view of Japanese culture, and to be fair to Ziyi Zhang’s interpretation of the leading role.
The outcries of cultural insensitivity swirling around Geisha are valid criticisms, but even if it boasted an all-Japanese cast, the movie (produced by Steven Spielberg, who has an ignominious history of cultural whitewashing that dates back to The Color Purple) would still be a disaster. Robin Swicord’s screenplay forsakes subtlety in favor of spectacle, and the film groans under the weight of counterfeit seriousness.
Marshall has decided that the first hour or so of this 137-minute film should take place in torrential downpours. With all the rain, smoke, and mist, and the dark lighting that shrouds events in blackness, it’s often impossible to see what’s on screen. The director loves shots of rain spattering from the eaves of pagodas, and when 9-year-old Chiyo (who will grow up to be the famed geisha Sayuri, played by Zhang) searches the city for her lost sister, she roams around without a parasol. Her misery is supposed to affect us more because she’s cold and wet. Later, the women of the okiya (geisha household), where Chiyo works as an indentured servant, stand out in the pouring rain to have an argument. No one thinks of going inside to resolve the conflict; they stand there oblivious to the cascading torrents, as if being drenched were a normal way of life.
Instead of insights into the tradition these women embody, we’re given a plot that’s a confusing mess. Swicord evidently thought American audiences would be unable to take an interest in geisha unless two women were pitted against each other in a contrived, aggressive competition, as if it were a sports match. This insulting “rivalry” culminates in a lurid fight scene between Sayuri and the villainous Hatsumomo (Gong Li), complete with smashed kerosene lamps, a drawn dagger, melodramatic horror-movie music, and flames that engulf the okiya.
It’s almost inconceivable, in an age when moviegoers are attuned to Wong Kar-Wai, Zhang Yimou, Kim Ki-duk, and other Asian filmmakers of vision, that an American studio would repackage stereotypes of “exotic Orientals” like commodities in a boutique specialty market. Marshall, Swicord, and Spielberg are determined to turn back the clock cinematically, all the way back to The World of Suzie Wong. At one point, Sayuri says, “I felt a little chill disappear like a white mask with red lips,” and I’m not entirely certain that Swicord remembered to insert that first “a.” (It’s hardly Ziyi Zhang’s fault that she lacks the authority she had in House of Flying Daggers.)
Equally appalling, there’s Gong Li, that superb actress, in her first disgraceful performance. Anyone who saw her in Ju Dou or in Sun Zhou’s underrated (and quite wonderful) Zhou Yu’s Train will be shocked to see how Marshall misdirects her to be an over-enunciating virago. “’Tis a pity she stinks of fish,” Hatsumomo says of Chiyo, stressing every single syllable.
I left Geisha feeling that everything in this big-budget fiasco was calculated down to the last dollar. Even the cherry blossoms, swaying in the breeze, seem micromanaged. — NPT