The Eel and the Cave

by Alan Rapp on December 23, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

Memoirs of a Geisha wants to be a meaningful and masterful work of cinema but never puts in the work to get there.  Beautifully shot with sets and costumes to make you drool over the film is a visual delight.  Yet in the end the film bares more than a striking resemblance to a Britney Spears music video.  Sure it’s great to look at, but really what’s the point?

Memoirs of a Geisha
3 Stars

Memoirs of a Geisha wants to be a grand and epic story; it’s not.  Beautifully shot the film lacks the story and the emotion to tell the tale worthy of the performances it wastes.  Though incomplete and somewhat shallow the film does give some worthy moments to compliment its magnificent look and is worth viewing, but I wanted a little more than the film was willing to give.

The story tells of a young girl Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) who is sold by her father (Mako) to become a geisha.  She grows up the house as a slave and eventually realizes her dream of being trained and reborn as Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) a true geisha before all is taken away by the war and she must then decide how to put her life back together.

The movie breaks down into three segments: the life of Chiyo/Sayuri as a girl, the life in training to be a geisha, and the life after World War II.  The first is relatively pointless exercise that involves Chiyo trying to escape and sets up her life long crush on the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) who offers the young girl a small bit of kindness.  The second gets the story moving as her training begins with another geisha (Michelle Yeoh) and begins to explore what a geisha is but only in a Cliff’s Notes kind of way as much is left unsaid and witheld.  The final part of the movie is mostly an overlong epilogue about reclaiming your position after tragedy and trying to find happiness with the one you love.

The film is beautifully photographed by Dion Beebe including some visually stunning shots that have a Kubrick-esk style to them.  The costumes and the music help to frame the timelessness of the piece and the style of the locale.

My main trouble with the movie is the script does not measure up to the style.  The film never truly decides on what a geisha is and what it means to be one.  It often expounds the idea that a geisha is not a prostitute yet offers scenes where a geisha sells herself to men.  Nor are the negative aspects involved in such a position adequately addressed. 

Sayuri herself has issues.  All of the evil things that happen to her are from evil people not as a reaction from the circumstances of her chosen profession or any fault of her own.  We should feel sorry for her, yet the actions she takes and the way she uses many people for her benefit make her unattractive and unacceptable as the victim of the piece.

I enjoyed Watanabe in his performance that so resembled Gregory Peck I couldn’t help but make the comparison.  Li Gong is fine as the competing geisha who constantly attacks and betrays Sayuri but her character isn’t explored or explained so she becomes more like an evil caricature than an actually human being.  I also found some joy in Ted Levine‘s performance as Colonel Derricks towards the end of the film and Youki Kudoh as a friend of Sayuri who provides one of the most wickedly enjoyable moments of the film.

Memoirs of a Geisha is neither as good as it wants to be nor as bad as it could have been.  It’s a fine visual piece that lacks the story and direction to become something more.  I still recommend the film for the cinematography and for Ken Watanabe who I will refer to now on as the Japanese Gregory Peck.

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