Recently watching Memoirs of a Geisha after viewing Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1956 Street of Shame made for an interesting exercise in compare-and-contrast. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold Memoirs (and Chicago) director Rob Marshall up to the lofty standards set by a legend like Mizoguchi, but their approaches to similar material — the lifestyle and rituals of the Japanese artisan/escorts known as geisha — speak volumes about the cultural contexts in which they work. Whereas Mizoguchi took a detached perspective that yielded sober (albeit often didactic) socio-political observations in films like Street and Sisters of Gion, Marshall, ever the Westerner, indulges in an exoticism and fetishism that would have made von Sternberg blush.
Based on the bestseller by Arthur Golden, Memoirs begins in pre-WWII Japan, where Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) and her sister are sold by their rural family to separate geisha houses in Miyako. After a failed escape and several undermining tricks from rival Hatsumomo (Gong Li), Chiyo proves herself not to be geisha material and is made a servant. But a chance encounter with The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) has her falling in love and then eventually being taken under the wing of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), a gentle mentor who transforms Chiyo, now known as Sayuri, into Miyako’s most well-known and coveted geisha.
The action plays out in sumptuous light and color (warm oranges and swimming blues accentuating the film’s dueling fire and water elements) by Dion Beebe, who has photographed the best-looking film of the year behind Last Days. But his achievements are in the service of a story that unashamedly romanticizes the geisha, objectified by Marshall’s impatient, constantly roving camera as a “moving work of art.” Elsewhere, Memoirs lazily fits into Hollywood’s triumph-of-the-human-spirit model: Sayuri’s apprenticeship resembles the training montage from Rocky; her (and the plot’s) reliance on a powerful man to provide freedom and happiness uncritically avoids cultural inquiry.
Opens December 9