Swathed in the luxurious embrace of silk and tinged with a poignant yearning, the big-screen adaptation of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ gracefully makes its entrance, guided by the capable hands of director Rob Marshall. This lavish melodrama, based on Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel, aspires to weave a tale of Japanese geishas entangled in jealous rivalries against the backdrop of the tumultuous 1930s and 40s. The film boasts an ensemble cast featuring Chinese superstars Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li, along with the Malaysian transplant Michelle Yeoh, creating a visual spectacle of emotions and intrigues.
As the narrative unfolds, we are introduced to the central character, Sayuri, portrayed by Ziyi Zhang, a geisha whose journey from a childhood marred by suffering leads her to become a renowned entertainer. The plot is richly embroidered with vaguely ethnographic exotica, Japanese phrases, and a plethora of hothouse intrigues, creating a tapestry of geisha life during a pivotal period in history.
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One cannot ignore the film’s attempt to grapple with the more distasteful aspects of geisha’s existence, delicately balancing the contradictions between degradation and the glamorous trappings that surround them. The story commences in the 1920s with a scene where a young Chiyo and her older sister are sold into divergent fates, setting the stage for the intricate rivalries within the geisha world.
The narrative unfolds with a symphony of devious rivals, swoon-worthy swains, and a palette of fabulous accoutrements, reminiscent of a soap opera set against the rich cultural backdrop of Japan.
Within this cloistered world, where men come and go like ephemeral gusts of wind, the film ventures into the complexities of geisha life. Rigorously trained from childhood, geishas dedicate themselves wholly to the paid amusement of male customers. The dichotomy between the perceived intoxicatingly exotic life of a geisha, perfumed with face powder and the mildest suggestion of s*x, and the stark reality of their existence forms the core of the narrative.
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The film, credited to screenwriter Robin Swicord, unfolds like a dramatic series, complete with captivating characters, jaw-dropping dance numbers, and a touch of melodramatic catfights.
As the plot deepens, the film introduces Hatsumomo, played by captivating hauteur Gong Li, as an older star geisha and Sayuri’s primary rival. Hatsumomo’s eye for beauty and ferocious determination brings to mind iconic figures like Joan Crawford, channelling a nostril-flaring intensity reminiscent of Crawford’s most famous roles.
The rivalry between Sayuri and Hatsumomo unfolds with soap-operatic proportions, drawing in additional characters such as Mameha, portrayed by Michelle Yeoh, a rival geisha who takes Sayuri under her wing.
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Amidst the labyrinth of complex relationships and rivalries, the story pivots around the two businessmen, the Chairman and Nobu, played by Ken Watanabe and Koji Yakusho, respectively. The film explores the dynamics of their interactions with the geishas, adding layers of complexity to an already intricate narrative.
However, the film grapples with certain challenges that detract from its overall impact. Rob Marshall, despite his directorial prowess, struggles to rescue the film from its occasionally awkward screenplay and the cultural amalgamation of Chinese, Japanese and Hollywood influences. The decision to have the actors deliver their lines in vaguely British-sounding English adds an unnatural halting quality to the dialogue, disrupting the fluidity of language and robbing it of the breath of real life.
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Yet, despite its shortcomings, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ manages to offer dividends in the form of captivating performances and visually stunning production values. The exquisite costumes, meticulously crafted to transport the audience into the world of geishas, and the eminently watchable performances of the female leads elevate the film beyond its narrative hiccups.
The movie stands as a cinematic experience that, while grappling with narrative challenges and cultural nuances, manages to deliver moments of visual splendour and compelling performances.
The film’s portrayal of the intricate world of geishas, with its mix of beauty, rivalry and cultural intricacies, offers a nuanced glimpse into a bygone era. Despite its occasional missteps, the film succeeds in creating a captivating tapestry that unfolds as discreetly as an unopened water lily, leaving an indelible impression on those who venture into its intricately woven narrative.