Friday, December 09, 2005

"Congratulations. You're one step closer to becoming Japan's Next Top Geisha."

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.


Jesse said...

Oh wow.

Well okay, yet another 2005 release that there's no need to bother with then. Suits me just fine.

At least both Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li had "2046" this year.

Nick M. said...

I refuse to read your comments before I write my own, but I saw the grade.


Nick M. said...

Well, I wrote my thoughts and then read yours. I am so glad that we are not as jaded as the rest of the audience (and my friend) was. Oh, and my friend claimed that I "ruined her experience" because I ranted and pointed out all the offensive flaws in the film. Good -- I'm glad she is disillusioned.

I am extremely happy that you touched upon how ideologically repugnant the film is -- I focused on the bastardization of culture in my review. It got too long and I had no room for the offensive social aspects.

As I said early to someone, the author was in attendance and he claimed that he was "part of a small group of authors who have liked the adaptation of their novels." He continued, however, by subtlely naming all the moments in his book that are missing from the film (read: everything he disliked about the movie -- you know, how it was taken completely out of context and eevrything). Then he subsequently ruined parts of the film (if that is even possible). He kept starting each sentence with, "In the film you will see..." Yes, Mr. Goldman, we SHALL SEE, now get out of the way. After 5 minutes of his annoying spoilers, I just wanted him to shut the fuck up.

Ali said...

Jesse - Yes, don't bother wasting your money. I expected it to be disappointing, but not THIS bad. And while I'm no fan of 2046, I'd take it any day over this trash.

Nick - Yeesh, that Goldman character sounds incredibly self-absorbed. I almost want to read this book out of morbid curiosity to see if it's as bad as the film in its offensive qualities.

Well, although audience members are going to love this film, we can at least take solace in the fact that it has a 28% Fresh rating on RT. I was pleased to review a one-star review yesterday in a local paper (Eye Magazine), which the reviewer had this great point to make:

"Late in the film, our heroine Sayuri (Zhang) returns home to Kyoto in the aftermath of World War II, where she finds her childhood friend Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) buddying up to the American GIs who've taken over the city. She's mortified by Pumpkin's easy acquiescence to her new conquerors -- her words are peppered with Yankee slang -- but it's the audience who should be confused. Hasn't Pumpkin, like everyone else in the film, been speaking English all along? These crass Americans have been with us the whole time -- on the other side of the camera."


Nick M. said...

Apparently, the book is told in a flashback sequence -- and begins and ends in New York. Sayuri explains her life journey to a man in New York (who, presumably, is Goldman). This makes the English language justifiable, but the film has no sign of this. So, basically, the film is just completely out of context.

Ooo...I just thouhgt of something good:

"Memoirs of a Geisha is as oriental as a package of Ramen noodles."

Nick M. said...

Oh, and I basically said what that reviewer said -- he was just much more articulate and eloquent than I was. He he.

JavierAG said...

ali i think your list of favorite movies absolutely rocks. you're only missing stuff like "Mulholland Dr"... ;)

Ali said...

Thanks Javier, that's very reassuring!

As for Mulholland Dr., I must admit that I wasn't all that blown away back in 2001. Plus, I'm not the biggest Lynch devotee. Then again, my viewing experience for MD wasn't ideal, because I was watching the DVD on my computer which would freeze every five minutes.

Thanks for bringing it up, it is definitely time for another watch.

JavierAG said...

you do that...

seriously, great choice of movies, except maybe "russian ark" which i personally dislike (but i'm the only one so who cares...) ;)

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