Memoirs of a Geisha
The movie is in a way the female version of Gladiator. In the Ridley Scott movie, the Gladiator dares to challenge the power of a king. Here a Geisha dares to fight for her freedom, to have actual feelings and not remain in the shadows of a secret world. Ziyi Zhang plays the Geisha, who after a delayed entry into that world, makes it her aim to woo the chairman of a power company.
The cinematography by Dion Beebe, fresh from the success of Collateral and Chicago, is stunning. He gets excellent support from the costume and set departments and Beebe makes the most of it.
Suzuka Ohga makes a stunning debut as the young Geisha with beautiful, blue eyes. The lengthy sequence in the rain as Chiyo makes a desperate bid to re-unite with her older sister, who has become a prostitute, is superbly shot. Ohga makes a brilliant turn, Chiyo’s despair written large on her face.
Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) brings in the fresh air of hope both into the movie and into Chiyo’s life. It’s love at first sight between the chairman and Chiyo, even though the girl is only a child. Watanabe is all charm and has this peculiar way of bringing a lot of dignity into all the scenes that he has. In many scenes, he has more screen presence that the lovely women in kimonos he is surrounded by.
Ziyi Zhang looks a bit uncomfortable playing a 15-year-old in the sequences that show her transformation from servant girl to Zayuri, Japan’s greatest Geisha, but later on she shows some of the brilliance that made her so great in 2046.
One of the most memorable scenes Ziyi has is of her return to Geishadom after WW II. She approaches Michelle Yeoh, an older Geisha who has trained her, for help. As Michelle agrees to help her, the look on Ziyi’s face is great. In a series of four of five expressions, Ziyi makes this scene matter to the audience, etching in her love for the chairman, which simply just grows larger and larger within her.
The lives these extraordinary women, trapped forever in a world of deceit and deception, are shown in great detail. I haven’t read the book, but I suspect it’s from there that director Rob Marshall (Chicago) draws his passion for detail.
I expected the movie to be another House of Flying Daggers, full of bright, flamboyant silk costumes, but it’s hardly that. The costumes are understated, the camera work exceptionally functional. In scenes of elation, the camera quickly moves to great sweeping shots. Just the first set up of the fishing village in which Chiyo has grown up was enough to convince me of the greatness of the cinematographer. Then Beebe comes full circle in the last sequence showing it exactly the same way he shoots the first one.
Gong Li, in a special appearance, plays a rebellious, passionate Geisha, who in the sheer frustration of her inability to beat her rival Zayuri, almost destroys her own life.
Ziyi’s greatest moment and the film’s as well, though, is a dancing sequence, set up for Zayuri’s bidding by the town’s wealthiest men. The cinematography here is ethereal and Ziyi’s performance belongs to the floating world of Geishas rather than ours. I expect when the movie is forgotten after a few years, this sequence will continue to influence cinematographers and dancers in Hollywood.