I take objection to Memoirs of a Geisha (Marshall, 05) [D-] on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start (and no, I won't be criticizing the film's casting; enough has been said about that issue already.) But if there was ever a prize given out for most mixed messages contained in a single film, Memoirs would be a total lock for the "honour". For the most part, it has no idea what it's talking about and the ideas it tries to leave you with are incredibly problematic, to say the least. Furthermore, any credibility it might have as a critique of Geisha hierarchies or of the double binds faced by women under patriarchy and American colonialism are severely undermined by Marshall's tendencies to go for the glitz factor and engage in embarrassing, manipulative melodrama.
Here's what was going on inside my head while I watched (*Spoiler Warning*):
Starts off well enough, bleakly exploring how little Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is separated from her sister and sold into a Kyoto Geisha house. Her determination to escape the oppressive power imbalances in the house is inspiring and effective (I'm digging it). However, now it's shifting gears when Chiyo grows up into the prized Geisha Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi) and all her main concerns seem to be learning how to bust some cool moves on a catwalk while being pelted by synthetic snowflakes and also how to deal with the violent uber-bitch Hatsumomo (an ever-sneering Gong Li), who apparently has nothing better to do than to harrass little girls for entering her bedroom and consequently vowing vengeance for life. Okay...
But wait, now the movie wants to focus less on dress-up and Geisha politics, and more on the Second World War. No, actually, scratch that, because Sayuri conveniently packs in several years of conflict and hardship into an informative one-minute voice over ("Then another year passed... then another... then another... then another"). I suppose Zhang Ziyi in refugee get-up isn't all that interesting to the filmmakers- audiences want her back in a pretty kimono, dammit! Done and done.
Now it's focusing on pleasing creepy, oversexed Americans who mistake Geishas for prostitutes. It gets awfully convoluted here. But wait, all complexity is dismissed in favour of love triangles, sexual politics and more catty back-stabbing. You know, all this would be easy to take, but Sayuri's interest in becoming a Geisha in the first place is disturbing. She doesn't pray to land this coveted position because it will award her some degree of power (however limited) or because she'll get to look pretty. No, she wants to become a Geisha because she wants Ken Watanabe to court her.
Okay, again, I would be able to accept that, however creepy and questionable. But then the film actually has the gall to suggest in its bizarre happy ending that a suitable alternative for a frustrated Geisha is to settle down and marry! Beware oh you Geishas who walk out into the morning mist, attempting to face the world by yourselves (I'm talking to you, Hatsumomo) - according to this film's interpretation, you are doomed. Therefore, if you are a dissatisfied Geisha who is feeling limited in her prospects (read: "I am not worthless!" and "I want a life of my own!"), all you have to do... is find a benelovent husband! Problem solved.
Roll Credits. Cue applause from several audience members (You've got to be kidding me.)
Er, what was this movie trying to say?
Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha is a film more ignorant than Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai, if that is possible to believe.