Why did I rent Memoirs of a Geisha? I hated the book on which it was based. Ziyi Zhang’s breathily portentous line reading in the preview — “A story like mine has NEVER been told” — made me roll my eyes. The little I heard of John Williams’ score made me long for Tan Dun’s superior work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I suppose Memoirs made its way onto my Netflix queue because it seemed a shame to pass up the chance to see Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang on screen together, but I should have trusted my instincts. Memoirs of a Geisha is a dull, overwrought mess. I would have been better off holding my own personal marathon of the trio’s greatest hits, maybe Farewell My Concubine, Crouching Tiger, House of Flying Daggers and 2046.
In Memoirs, Zhang stars as Sayuri, a young geisha whose only motivation in life is to become the possession of the elusive Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a charming businessman who was kind to her once when she was a child. Yeoh plays her mentor, Mameha, whose primary duty is to spout aphorisms about geisha life for the benefit of Western audiences. (Her sex ed talk about eels and undisturbed caves translates particularly poorly.) Gong is their rival, Hatsumomo, who spends most of her time skulking in the shadows, indulging in pyromania and casting venomous fanged smiles at Sayuri across rooms filled with their gentleman callers.
The movie wants us to believe that it’s an intimate look at what a geisha’s life is really like, but it drowns its realism in the sickening honey of a Western fairy tale. The fairy tale isn’t even a good one. Why should we romanticize a prepubescent girl’s crush sustained well into adulthood? I remember the objects of my 12-year-old self’s affection and cringe. I’ve matured past the point of idolizing precocious potheads. Moving on is part of growing up, but Sayuri is forever a 12-year-old with rescue fantasies. At one point, she wails petulantly, “I want a life that is mine,” but she doesn’t, not really. She wants a life that is his. That’s not romantic; it’s pitiful.
The movie eventually reveals that (spoiler! but only for those completely lacking in foresight) the Chairman has always reciprocated Sayuri’s infatuation. Bountiful cherry blossoms and soaring violins assure us that this is ever so romantic, but it’s not. Considering that he met her when she was a little girl, it’s quasi-pedophilic.
But worse than offending my feminist sensibilities, the insipid overarching plot of Memoirs offends my common sense. Sayuri’s life changes dramatically over the course of the film. During World War II, for example, she lives in a remote mountain village as an ordinary commoner. She spends years there without anyone from her former life or any hope of returning to it. How could that experience not change her and alter the shape of her dreams? Does she not make new friends or fall in love or learn anything about life as a woman rather than an objet d’art?
Memoirs’ static characters are matched by Rob Marshall’s turgid direction. He often fails to film the beautiful costumes to their best advantage, and he sucks the energy out of Zhang’s performances as a geisha. Zhang’s “echo game” dance is one of the highlights of House of Flying Daggers, but her big number in Memoirs falls flat. Her dancing is supposed to make a man desperate to bid for the privilege of sending his eel to visit her previously unexplored cave, but lackluster editing robs it of its immediacy and passion. In other words, Memoirs doesn’t even shine as eye candy, and a movie about geishas that fails to meet even that base goal is simply not worth watching.