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Monday, December 26, 2005

Memoirs of a Geisha

I usually try to see the new releases on opening day, but I was laid up with a back injury when Memoirs of a Geisha opened a few days ago, so I'm a bit behind. Now it's Christmas Day and my hubby and I figure it would be the perfect opportunity to go to the Essex Outlet Cinemas to see our friends there and catch this long-awaited adaptation of the best seller by Arthur Golden. Since it is the "big" holiday of the year we expected a quiet day with just a few people here and there, those people without families to gather with by the tree and sing carols and do all those Christmas-y things that families never do except on Everwood and The Gilmore Girls. We were wrong. The Essex Outlet Cinemas looked like Logan Airport during a snowstorm, apparently everyone in Chittenden County was anxious to get away from their relatives and see an on-screen fantasy rather than deal with the wretched reality of hygienically-challenged Uncle Ned or step-monster-in-law Martha, who, on her third martini before dinner, has burned a hole in your new leather sofa with her cigarette that you asked her not to smoke next to the baby in the first place. Of course, the Essex Outlet Cinemas does have a plethora of great movies in all its' theaters at this time of year as the Hollywood studios release their best right before the end of the year in preparation for the Academy Award nominations next month. Certainly one that needs to be high on that list is Memoirs of a Geisha. It is simply magnificent.

I was a bit concerned when the movie opened with a voiceover that stated: "A story like mine should never be told..." That just leads to way too many opportunities for sniping from snide critics like moi, but I was won over quickly despite reading ahead of time about all the drama associated with the film. Even before the first camera was turned on many in the Japanese-American community were outraged that three of the lead roles were being filled by Chinese actresses and that the film was being directed by an American man. I can only assume Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yoeh and Gong Li were cast because of their talent in auditioning, but I can understand in this age of political correctness how some would be offended by the casting and how others might complain about the handling of the Japanese subject matter by an American male, director Rob Marshall. After all, the culture of the geisha has always been passed on and taught by women to women and for women to use in their lives. It must appear disconcerting or condescending to some that the "definitive" story of these secrets is now being brought to the screen by an American, and a man to boot! It could be worse. I remember growing up in an age when an actress like Natalie Wood would simply have her eyes pulled back with a little rubber cement and affect a horrible non-descript Asian accent and that was considered a perfectly acceptable and "realistic" portrayal for audiences around the globe. That said, it is a shame that the story and the beauty of Memoirs of a Geisha may get lost in a quagmire of political emotions that might stop people from enjoying the experience for what it is.

The story itself is not complicated. In many ways, it is a traditional fairy tale like Cinderella. Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang, in an absolutely perfect performance) and her sister are sold into slavery by her father as their mother lays dying. The girls are separated, and Sayuri is resigned to a life of hardship and abuse working in a geisha house.

When she realizes that escape is futile and that reuniting with her sister is no longer a possibility, Sayuri falls into a deep depression. It is only the kindness of a man called The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), whom she meets one day on a bridge, that impresses the girl enough to go on, especially when she sees that he is in the company of two geishas. With that knowledge, Sayuri dreams of someday enjoying their educated and venerated lifestyle so that she, too, can know such a life away from drudgery and torment, and she sets out to prove to her "chaperones" that she is more than a fishmonger's daughter.

When an unexpected benefactor (the scene-stealing Michelle Yeoh) comes looking for Sayuri, the frightened girl begins her long and arduous training to become a geisha. By the time she grows up, Sayuri proves to be a remarkable talent, commanding the attention of every man she meets, and thus enraging the bitter Hatsumomo (a deliciously vile and vindictive Gong Li), who, up until now, has been the most talked-about and desired geisha in the region. Nevertheless, all the adoration in the land can't help satisfy Sayuri's love for The Chairman, who seems to see her only as a friend and the companion of his business associate and the man who saved his life in the last war, Mr. Nobu (Kôji Yakusho). Because Nobu's face was scarred in the rescue, The Chairman he feels obliged to put aside any budding feelings he might have for Sayuri and instead encourage and support the relationship between her and Nobu.

This really is an epic tale, spanning many years before, during, and after World War II. The changes in these few decades, when the geishas went from being cherished for their culture and companionship, and then morphing into some "Americanized" version, basically becoming little more than street prostitutes after the War, shows a sad decline in Japanese culture as a result of Western influence. The war sequences hold interest, mostly because they capture the bittersweet decline of the geisha, quickly turned into crude prostitutes who easily con foreign serviceman out of their money with a little attention. The beauty and talent of geishas as musicians, dancers, and "living works of art" is forgotten in the heat of the war but the struggle to resurrect the art is a big part of the final act of Memoirs of a Geisha.

Overall, this is a movie rife with deceit, treachery and rivalries as much as it is about what becomes of a little girl who gets sold into bondage by her impoverished Japanese family. It's also about a lifelong search for love in a society in which customs and traditions apparently prevent people from making simple declarations of devotion to one another. Memoirs of a Geisha is a feast for the eyes, but icy to the touch, in many ways like the geishas themselves. Despite Western perceptions, the geisha is not one to provide passion but to provide beauty, and this Geisha does that in breath-taking ways.

If you are in need of a sumptuous few hours of pure awe-inspiring on-screen beauty as much as you need a compelling story that will keep you completely absorbed then Memoirs of a Geisha is the one for you. And if you've had enough turkey to last until next Thanksgiving, the Essex Outlet Cinemas always has nachos.

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