Beauty without substance

While 'Memoirs of a Geisha' allows us to glimpse a world few know, it's a slender reed of a tale From the cover

Beauty without substance in `Memoirs of a Geisha'

December 23, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Memoirs of a Geisha isn't the latest case of the emperor's new clothes. But it's close enough. The uncrowned empresses of Kyoto's hanamachi (or geisha district) wear gorgeous clothes in Rob Marshall's exquisite adaptation of Arthur Golden's novel. Yet this picture (like Cold Mountain and The Shipping News) is one more case of a master movie craftsman revealing the slenderness of a beloved best-seller.

It's understandable that Golden's fictional account of geisha life would beguile readers. It presents an astounding insider's look at an existence that was guarded and mysterious even during its heyday in the '20s and '30s. There's no equivalent to the geisha in Western culture: a woman trained to give pleasure to a man without being a prostitute, to stylize her own appearance into a stunning figment of imaginative beauty and to imbue each action with a carefully choreographed grace.

Golden - and Marshall, too - capture all this. But Golden's book is a marvel of research, not plot or character. To put it on its feet, a director must churn up a soap opera that, as written, doesn't achieve low-to-medium suds. Marshall remains a moviemaking prodigy. It's fitting that he entered movies with his spectacular rendering of Bob Fosse's musical Chicago, because few stage artists since Fosse have made such astounding virtuoso leaps into large-scale film production. With Chicago, Marshall proved that he can bring a fresh new take to beloved material. But he may not be the type of director who can give it a brand-new interior. (Even Fosse stumbled because he thought he was an all-around auteur.)

Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), a naive young beauty who comes to Kyoto from a fishing village, has all the drawbacks of a Dickens heroine and none of the outlandish virtues. Marshall and his screenwriters (Robin Swicord and Doug Wright) make her subtly witty throughout (in the novel she seems to drop her wit and relearn it when she becomes a geisha). Still, for long stretches she's both suffering and passive, like an observing angel hovering over her own biography.

Sold as a servant to the geisha house of Mother (Kaori Momoi), she's doomed to persecution from the celebrated, malicious geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), until Hatsumomo's virtuous rival, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), adopts her as her protege. Zhang, who plays the heroine from age 15, is equally touching and elegant. But she can't make the wispy figure of Sayuri haunting. As the skeleton key to the drama, Marshall and company home in on the geisha's inability to give her all for love. A geisha must remain an artful creature devoted to the highest sort of hedonism. She can't let emotions mar her poise. What makes Hatsumomo so volatile (and at some level sympathetic) is that she does have genuine passion. When thwarted, it destroys her.

Sayuri rebels, too, but quietly. She holds on to a moment she had in childhood when a man she comes to know as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) took pity and bought an icy treat for her. She devotes herself as an adult to becoming his favorite. Sadly, in both movie and book, the Chairman remains so far removed from the main action that he can't help anchor it. Too many subplots register as romantic complications for a romance that unfolds in the heroine's head.

A dancer who worked his way up out of the chorus, Marshall identifies with the geisha's regimen as a performing artist's training. In the movie's strongest section, he puts over the erotic lyricism and sadism of the geisha's profession, and portrays Sayuri emerging into it like a pupa painfully wriggling out of its cocoon. (The geisha are sometimes called "butterflies of the night.")

He's terrific at depicting Yeoh's serene Mameha teaching Sayuri how to show the right amount of wrist when serving tea or how to stop a man in his tracks with a single look. And a portrait of a colorful yet constricted life does emerge from all the tiny brushstrokes of the cinematographer (Dione Beebe) and the costume and production designers (Colleen Atwood and John Myhre). There's an electric delicacy to the imagery. At night, the red lights of Kyoto illuminate the geishas' kimonos. They become gliding and seductive apparitions.

But even when Gong Li's Hatsumomo whips herself up into Joan Crawford-like furies, the movie never ignites. The filmmakers drop the ball with Pumpkin, Sayuri's best friend and Hatsumomo's protege; she has so little presence as a character that when she commits a pivotal betrayal, all she elicits is a "huh?" Elsewhere, Marshall tries too hard. He stages the opening coastal scene with such a surge of stormy sounds and pounding waters you may think Sayuri is being sent Kyoto-way to escape a tsunami.

Later, he gives Hatsumomo such a flaming sendoff you wonder why it doesn't incinerate the entire district. The property simply proves intractable. Memoirs of a Geisha was never primed to be a film that burns down the house.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Memoirs of a Geisha (Sony Pictures) Starring Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh. Directed by Rob Marshall.

Rated PG-13.

Time 137 minutes.

Review C+

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