During China's Tang dynasty the emperor has taken the princess of a neighboring province as wife. She has borne him two sons and raised his eldest. Now his control over his dominion is complete, including the royal family itself.
In 1929 an impoverished nine-year-old named Chiyo from a fishing village is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto's Gion district and subjected to cruel treatment from the owners and the head geisha Hatsumomo. Her stunning beauty attracts the vindictive jealousy of Hatsumomo, until she is rescued by and taken under the wing of Hatsumomo's bitter rival, Mameha. Under Mameha's mentorship, Chiyo becomes the geisha named Sayuri, trained in all the artistic and social skills a geisha must master in order to survive in her society. As a renowned geisha she enters a society of wealth, privilege, and political intrigue. As World War II looms Japan and the geisha's world are forever changed by the onslaught of history. Written by
Youki Kudoh revealed in an interview that her grandmother had suffered much heartache when her husband took a Geisha as a mistress during their marriage. See more »
When Hatsumomo and Pumpkin are leaving on the night of Pumpkin's debut, neither Mother nor Auntie spark flint on their backs. A Geisha would never leave her okiya without this act being performed as it was believed it brought good luck. See more »
[tallying up little Chiyo's costs, after her fall]
Doctor Mora is very expensive. You seem to be racking up quite a debt. Kimono, destroyed. Train ticket, Mr. Bekku, rice and pickles, geisha school, and on top of the money I paid Mr. Tanaka. And for what?... And now I hear your sister has run away. She didn't wait for you and now she can never come back. You must forget you ever had a sister.
[handing her a bundled package]
We are your only family now.
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With all of the negative reviews in my mind as I walked into the theatre, I braced myself for the worst. It turns out that my opinion of the film that seemed to raise so much controversy over casting and language fell in line with neither the vehemently negative, nor the positive accolades of the critics who hail it as one of the best films of the year. Instead, I left the theater feeling ambivalent, not quite sure to sing its praises or to decry it completely.
One thing is for sure, the film is gorgeous. There are scenes where the colour seems to bleed off the screen, and some just look like portraits. That being said, the film seems to have forgotten subtlety as a facet of art. Memoirs of a Geisha feels like a distinctly American period film, a fabrication marked by artificiality. Instead of using the actors as a vehicle for conveyance, our eyes are instead drawn to the set design, the framing, the cinematography (at least, for me).
Everyone is probably sick of all the discussions about the casting of Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, and Li Gong, but I'm going to raise it again. As a Chinese-American, it was strange for me to see three actors who don't look Japanese play the part of the geisha. Additionally, the fact that the film is in English also proved problematic because although Michelle Yeoh's English is quite polished, Li Gong and Zhang Ziyi's English is definitely not. Much of the time, I was struggling to understand what they were saying (a gripe that I've seen mentioned by many others). The inconsistency of the dialogue (e.g., different accents from different characters, sporadic Japanese words during English conversation between characters)detracted from the film for me, because I had to keep asking myself, "Why is this not in Japanese?" In the end, the film feels like a cup of instant ramen. It's satisfying and tasty when the hunger pangs strike, but an hour later, you're left wondering why you didn't just go for something a little more substantial than freeze-dried noodles in a broth made from water and MSG. Memoirs of a Geisha is an entertaining film, but I don't think I could sit through it again.
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