While watching Sakuran, I can't help but to chuckle at how long queues were formed, gawking from the outside, trying to get a taste of the cherry pie, as it somewhat mirrored my patiently waiting for the movie to be screened here, in any form, on the big screen. I had tried to get tickets to watch this during last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, where director Mika Ninagawa was in attendance, together with actor Masanobu Ando, but alas the tickets were sold out within minutes going online. It made my day to know that this year's festival had Sakuran in its lineup, and needless to say, this was one of two films shown during the festival that tickets were completely snapped up. And I guess waiting a few more days to the second last session of the fest is nothing compared to waiting for it for 18 months.
So what do I think about it? I thought it was an absolute delight, and well worth every minute of the torturous wait to feast my eyes upon it. For those who have watched Memoirs of a Geisha, comparisons will be inevitable, from storyline right down to every other aspect of filmmaking, and in my opinion, Sakuran trounces Geisha hands down. Narrative-wise, it dealt with similar themes and development of its lead character, with their being sold to slavery in a brothel, before their good looks meant being groomed for their inevitable role of economic contribution to their owner's coffers in the world's oldest profession. However, these are strong willed individuals who refuse to conform, and stories of such nature never fail to add a dash of conflicted romance to spice up the plot.
For historical buffs who want to know a little on the timeline and difference between the Geishas and the Oirans, the latter were high class courtesans meant for the pleasures of societal who's-who during the Edo period and were skilled in areas like dance, music and calligraphy, before the rise of the former group brought about an end to the Oirans, akin to an evolution of the role. The oirans operated from segregated "pleasure quarters" back then, which is like one big integrated resort filled with entertainment for pleasure. Both groups have elaborate rituals and rites, and in Sakuran, we get to see a grand procession of the top Oiran on impossible heels, together with her entourage being paraded, sort of heralding their arrival to the top, as well as to probably become a live advertising billboard.
Based on a manga, the protagonist of Sakuran is Kiyoha (played by rocker Anna Tsuchiya, who owned the role), who when young was a scruffy looking kid with attitude and a motor mouth, and we see her transformation into that of an Oiran, an epitome of elegance, but still stuck with that caustic, acerbic wit and tongue (pardon the pun). While she possesses some innate powers of seduction mastered from a young age of observation, which naturally propelled her to fandom and legendary status amongst pleasure seekers, she too like Sayuri of Memoirs, yearns for freedom and escape from bondage, and while having to deal with plenty of suitors, here ranging from Lords to Samurais, her heart inevitably belonged to one man who, as the saying goes, is always close by.
It centers around the love and life of a courtesan, and this movie would not have pulled it off if not for the very glamourous Anna Tsuchiya taking on the lead role, and giving the role a three-dimensional personality and dripping charisma all over the screen each time she comes on. With a flutter of the eyelash, or a whisper of her uniquely sounding voice, she owns this role, and is very much less of a bore given that she's not squeaky clean, nor a damsel-in-distress. She doesn't mince her words, and speaks her mind openly, which endears her, and is
But besides the acting front, with a whole supporting cast of wonderful actors bringing to life their respective characters, the movie is as strong on the technical end. Having a woman at the directing helm provided a very measured translation in bringing out the internal strength of a woman, and the art direction, costumes and sets too were pretty perfect. In fact, one of the earliest observations that strike you is that the colors are strikingly rich and saturated, and the gold fish and their tanks of different shapes and sizes, will make you wonder if you should go creative with your aquarium at home too. With an eclectic sountrack of pop, rock, and even jazz to boot, there's never a dull moment in Sakuran as there's so much going on that you wish for the film to never stop going.
And I'll end it off with one more comparison with Memoirs of a Geisha for good measure - this film is less dramatic or epic in scale, but more than compensates for it with its excellent charismatic cast, and a lot more flair without sinking into the melodramatic, even though I had wished for a darker ending. Oh, and because the film wasn't framed properly during the screening, I had a field day with spotting countless of microphones popping up all over the place overhead, and in one scene with the spewing of blood, had seen two fingers and a hose doing the deed. While these moments didn't ruin the movie, it did however brought a little shine off movie magic.