Sunday, January 15, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

It's been a long wait for the movie to come to our shores, and I'd tell you it's all well worth it. Having touted many directors' involvement with this project (like Steven Spielberg, who's now producer), Rob Marshall finally got chosen to helm Arthur Golden's bestseller. And having an all recognizable Asian cast to shoulder this Hollywood production, is an achievement in itself in my opinion.

To the detractors who were up in arms over the casting of non-Japanese actresses as the leads, what's up with you? Sure they're not natives from the land of the rising sun, but bear in mind this is a Hollywood production, and it's all about the business too. Having actresses that the West are not familiar with, is like taking too huge a gamble. So we have Zhang Ziyi as the protagonist, whom a number would be familiar after her turn out in the caper Rush Hour 2, as with Michelle Yeoh with her stint as a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies. Gong Li would be familiar to those in the art house circuit with Wong Kar Wai's 2046 making its rounds. We do have Japanese in the movie, though mainly the male leads like Ken Watanabe (after a dismal appearance in summer blockbuster Batman Begins) and Cary-Hiroyuki "Mortal Kombat" Tagawa.

And it's indeed commendable effort from the actresses fronting the movie, having to learn and be convincing in the age old culture of the Geishas. There's another camp who're lobbying that the film is not accurate. Hello, this is a movie, based on a fictional novel. You want accuracy, go watch a documentary or something. Perhaps the only thing I found peculiar was the addition of the English subtitles, as if the Asians cannot speak properly and audiences need help to decipher their accented English?

Zhang Ziyi plays Chiyo/Sayuri, the daughter of a fisherman who got sold away as a young girl to a Geisha house. It's the usual rags-to-fame storyline, where rookie gets bullied, endures hardship, and one day, with a bit of luck, gets the opportunity to become one of the most famous in their profession of choice. And indeed the strength lay in Ziyi Zhang's competence in pulling off this coup, acting opposite 2 other accomplished actresses.

Gong Li plays Hatsumomo, a famous Geisha in her time, by with a wild, arrogant streak in her. She feels threatened by the arrival of the young girl Chiyo, and goes all out to frame and make life difficult for her. From the start, you know that these two characters have hatred running through their veins. It's interesting to see Ziyi and Li pair up - 2046 doesn't count as they didn't share scenes together. Both were once director's Zhang Yimou's muses, with Ziyi touted as the new Gong Li when she emerged from the scene. They do share some similar facial features, and it's somewhat strangely satisfying watching their cat-fights on screen, as if it's a wicked tale of Celebrity Deathmatch.

Michelle Yeoh plays Mameha, another famous Geisha in her time, and here, she takes on a more mature role, developing a mentor-protege relationship with Chiyo/Sayuri. Mameha teaches and refines Chiyo, and orchestrates her, if I may use the word, career of Sayuri. From the onset, Mameha has big plans for Sayuri, and we see the politicking side of the world of the Geisha, of becoming famous, of crafting a reputation, and the deft plotting that one must adept to in order to survive in the dog-eat-dog business world. Michelle and Ziyi paired off in Lee Ang's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as adversaries, and probably had memorable scenes together when fighting off each other in the rooftop and teahouse battles. Here, they go to the other side of the spectrum in becoming "sisters" as they coordinate to outwit, outplay and outlast Hatsumomo.

The most interesting would probably be the second act where we witness the meteoric rise of Sayuri. We are introduced proper into the complex Geisha life of rules and protocols, accompanied by the brilliant score of John Williams' and with Yo-Yo Ma on the cellos. The beautiful costumes and rich sets also become testament that the filmmakers spare no effort in bringing Kyoto, and the world of the Geisha, to life.

Perhaps the third act of the film, set after World War II, was the weakest of the three, as it seemed rushed to achieve closure for the romance between Sayuri and the Chairman (Ken Watanabe). It's a love that cannot be expressed freely, although one which had started from an infatuation, from respect, and became an obsessive fuel to become the best. With face and reputation at stake, it's truthfully sad that this is no period Pretty Woman. Perhaps the only uplifting moment in the third act, is the unexpected twist of betrayal, that you'll never see that patient stab in the back until it is too late.

It's a beautifully complex movie, and I'm amazed by how much can be weaved into what is seemingly a straightforward plot. This movie might give non-readers an excuse to pick up the book to learn more and dwell deeper into the psyche of the characters. But first, be enthralled by the movie, a must-watch this January.

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