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Little Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is taken from her poor home as her mother lies dying, and sold to an okiya run by Mother (Kaori Momoi). Legendary geisha Memeha (Michelle Yeoh), takes her under her wing and when her training is complete, Chiyo becomes the successful geisha, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang). But the okiya resident geisha, the haughty Hatsumomo (Gong Li), is jealous of Sayuri, and with her apprentice Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), plots to destroy her reputation. Meanwhile, Sayuri hides her feelings for The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), as she learns that a geisha is not entitled to love.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The rituals and traditions of an ancient culture defy simplification, but in Memoirs of a Geisha, at least we are given a glimpse into the labyrinthine processes that make up the fabric of an important part of Japanese society. This glimpse is filtered through the fictional work of an American author, male at that, and then secondarily through the filmmakers. Researched and recreated as it is, the world of Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) seems almost impossibly (and improbably) beautiful, thanks to the ravishing images captured by Dion Beebe. Every frame is a work of art, its composition, colours and lighting touched by magic.

The characters that populate the story are less beautiful, especially on the inside, but Ziyi Zhang does shine, eeking out a character from the bondage of compression. The book is much richer in that regard, as you'd expect. Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li also engage us, and Ken Watanabe's urbane characterisation of The Chairman is likeable, although perhaps a little wimpish. The important role of Nobo, The Chairman's business partner, is more textured and satisfying in the hands of a splendid Koji Yakusho. Both men are Japanese; the principal women are all played by Chinese (except Youki Kudoh's Pumpkin). This, like English, is plainly a commercial decision, based on the marquee value of the cast. But will the decision be regretted?

The flaws of the film begin with the language: speaking English with a variety of accents,
We are often struggling to grasp the meaning of dialogue that is delivered with cadences that are clearly un-English. I know the book is written in English, but the reader provides a licence with books, and hears the voices in a filtered imagination. The actual sound of words is of paramount importance in film, no matter that it's a visual medium. For all intents and purposes, the film often plays as though it's been badly dubbed; the accents intended to suggest that it isn't the characters' native tongue. It's too silly in this age; subtitles would have been less distracting.

But if the sound of the words is underwhelming, the sound of the music is pure joy; violin solo work by Itzhak Perlman, cello by Yo-Yo Ma, for a John Williams score that is an enthusiastic ally to the gorgeous production design.

With its rare moments of emotional engagement, Memoirs of a Geisha is a wonder to look at, but less sweeping than the subject matter promises.

Review by Louise Keller:
Visually gorgeous with exquisite production design, Memoirs of a Geisha is the epitome of the illusion and mystery of Japan's "wives of the night". The illusion however, is as fragile as an ornamental paper fan with the casting of Chinese actresses in what intrinsically is a Japanese story, and the stilted delivery of the English script. No doubt a commercial decision from Hollywood, the result is a sumptuously beautiful film whose strengths are also its weaknesses.

The curiosity of this hybrid begins with Arthur Golden's hauntingly descriptive novel that delicately creates a uniquely female world. It is so complete and rich in detail, it is hard to believe it was not only written by a man, but one who is not Japanese. Under Rob Marshall's helm, the film has mostly captured the denseness of the book, especially excelling in all things sensual. Yo-Yo Ma's cello echoes our inward sighs and our eyes feast on the ornate costumes and exotic settings of cobbled streets and cherry-blossomed Japanese gardens. We get a sense of the intricate world of the geisha house or okiya, where the pecking order starts and ends with the clacking of the abacus.

Cultural issues aside, it would be hard to find three more alluring lead actresses and cinematographer Dion Beebe seems to caress their beauty. Ziyi Zhang is innocent beauty personified as the girl with eyes like rain, Michelle Yeoh as the compassionate, elegant Mahema and Gong Li, who delivers a brilliant dramatic stroke as the multi-layered, scheming Hatsumomo. The tension-building rivalry between Sayuri and Hatsumomo form the most satisfying part of the story, as Hatsumomo goes to almost farcical lengths to discredit her rival. There's a gentleness about the central relationship between Sayuri and her mentor the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), although it lacks sexual tension. Youki Kudoh is splendid as Hatsumomo's puppet Pumpkin.

There are many visual highlights, including the climactic auction where Sayuri's virginity is up for bidding among the richer clients. (But the film [as the book] goes to considerable lengths to dispel the myth that a geisha is a prostitute.) With a shock of black hair, stark white kimono trimmed symbolically with bright scarlet, she dances through an artificial snowstorm, while potential suitors watch mesmerised. Her transformation from servant girl to geisha is complete.

Stunning to look at, Memoirs of a Geisha is worth seeing for the lush visuals alone. The accents and culture clashes may grate, but the insight into this world, where men can be brought to their knees with a single glance, is mesmerising.

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(US, 2005)

CAST: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Kji Yakusho, Kaori Momoi, Youki Kudoh, Li Gong

PRODUCER: Lucy Fisher, Steven Spielberg, Douglas Wick

DIRECTOR: Rob Marshall

SCRIPT: Robin Swicord, Doug Wright (novel by Arthur Golden)


EDITOR: Pietro Scalia

MUSIC: John Williams


RUNNING TIME: 144 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 19, 2006

VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow Home Entertainment

VIDEO RELEASE: July 20, 2006

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