Bestselling books have a built in audience, making them very attractive to film producers. Often, when Hollywood adapts a popular bestseller to the screen, they are unable to capture the magic of the book.
Such is the case with "Memoirs of a Geisha", the new film directed by Rob Marshall ("Chicago") based on the enormously popular book by Arthur Golden. Many, many, many people read and loved the book, which seems odd considering an American male wrote the book, a true testament to the writer's skill. He so successfully made the reader believe he was simply translating the life story of a real Geisha, we ate it up. He brilliantly evoked the time, place and feel of the period, giving us a glimpse of Japan just before the War. It was a great, interesting book.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" does not translate as well to the screen as the loyal fans of the book might have hoped. The film looks great, but it doesn't capture the life of Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) as well, making her a living, breathing human being.
Unable to care for their children, their parents sell Chiyo and her sister, Tanaka, to a Geisha house. Arriving at the house, the sisters are split up and Chiyo grudgingly begins to accept her new life as a housemaid for the domineering Mother. Soon, Hatsumomo (Gong Li, "Raise the Red Lantern", "Farewell, My Concubine"), the Geisha in the house, takes a disliking to Chiyo and proceeds to make her life hell. Soon, Chiyo is off to Geisha school, but events cause her to become an indentured servant within the house. One day, while out doing errands, she meets the Chairman (Ken Watanabe, "The Last Samurai"). Years later, Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "House of Flying Daggers", "Rush Hour 2") has grown up and Mameha (Michelle Yeoh, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Tomorrow Never Dies"), a leading Geisha, takes her under her wing to train her.
There are two significant problems hindering the film. The first is Ziyi Zhang. She is certainly a beautiful woman, but her acting leaves something to be desired. Throughout, she has trouble with the emotions, the problems of the character, making her believable. She resembles a Geisha performing an interpretation of being a Geisha, robbing the character of lifelike feeling and emotion. Throughout, she seems to turn on the emotion she is meant to felt for that scene, as though the director said "Sad", so she feels sad. When the next scene begins, new emotion. These emotions don't appear to be gradual, or real, as she proceeds through the character's life.
The other problem is the voice over narration bridges over gaps in the narration, rather than help transition through them. The voice over tells us what to feel rather than reinforces what we feel. Because of this, it feels obtrusive and jarring to suddenly hear something that we had no inkling ever happened.
There are a couple of great, visual sequences. One of these shows Sayuri's training to become a Geisha over a very short period of time. The scene is very visual and breathtaking to watch. A series of short, visual shots of various aspects of her education are bridged by transitions following one object from the frame to the next. This sequence, which is very fast, begins to give the viewer a sense of the work and training involved.
Michelle Yeoh does a great job as Mameha, the more experienced, kinder mentor Geisha. As she guides Sayuri, Chiyo's adopted Geisha name, through the process, we learn a lot about what their life was like. The traditions, their place in society, the goals they worked towards are all presented by the older mentor. As Yeoh moves gracefully through each scene, she becomes a benevolent judge to the protg, guiding her, but not afraid to reprimand her for a mistake either. As a result, she guides us through their unusual world.
Gong Li is also quite good as Hatsumomo, the Geisha who feels threatened by Chiyo and makes her life a living hell. Clearly, Hatsumomo doesn't entirely buy into the Geisha's world as she is courting a young man who could never afford the charms of a Geisha, but she is deathly afraid of losing any of her standing. As she comes to feel more threatened, she also lashes out more frequently, and in increasingly sadistic methods, tormenting the young Chiyo.
Ken Watanabe plays the Chairman, the object of Sayuri's attentions. Throughout the film, forces conspire to keep them apart and he subtly reveals that this is tearing him apart as well.
Director Rob Marshall certainly has a visual eye. In all of the scenes set before World War II, the landscapes are occasionally infused with bright, vivid colors. When a person of wealth or influence enters the scene, some bright color almost always accompanies them or is found by the camera. If the scene is set in a predominantly poor area or the people who live there are poor, the colors are washed out. This is a nice reinforcement of how class affected the daily life in Japan during this era.
What he doesn't do as well is guide the actors through their performances. This is problematic when the actors are less experienced and need the expertise of an accomplished director. The director needs to coax a subtle, interesting performance out of the actors, and not allow them to simply turn the emotion on and off. Marshall has a keen eye for detail, but needs to develop his skill working with the actors.
When the story moves into the phase after World War II, it became even less interesting for me. Anything Zhang Ziyi was able to build with her character was lost as she desperately attempts to become a Geisha once again, to help the Chairman get some American financing. We simply didn't spend enough time with Sayuri as a Geisha to believe that she is now the type of woman who can summon all of her reserves and training and return to a former life. And the reason behind this is, in our modern eyes, slightly creepy to begin with. The actress would have to work very hard to convince us that this is real, to allow us to get beyond the inherently creepy nature of the task. Ziyi can't pull it off and it becomes tedious as we wait for the inevitable conclusion.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" has a few moments that will please fans of the book. If you can catch a bargain matinee, you will probably not felt cheated.