Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Li Gong, Michelle Yeoh
Running time: 145 mins
The daughter of an impoverished fisherman, the young Sayuri (Suzuka Ohgo) is sold to a geisha house at the age of nine, destined to pursue the life of a "moving work of art". Picking up the story a few years later, after receiving an act of kindness from a well-to-do businessman (Watanabe), Sayuri (now Ziyi Zhang), finds purpose to her life – to become the world’s greatest geisha in the hope of winning his heart. In order to do this she must engage in bitter rivalry with the renowned but obnoxious geisha Hatsumomo (Li Gong) as she is trained up by the graceful Mameha (Yeoh).
As can be expected from Chicago director Rob Marshall, the film is fabulous in the visual department. The cinematography, scenery and costume all make the film a joy to watch and is by far Memoirs’ strongest point. He makes the town in which the geisha pursue their loveless lives of beauty convincingly claustrophobic and its transition brought by wartime is also effective. Meanwhile, the characters’ appearance and choreography also help to render the film an immersing spectacle.
Another great strength is excellent performances from all involved, particularly Li Gong who gives an intense but wholly believable portrayal of the jealous Hatsumomo. Although there has been criticism of the lead roles being played by Chinese actors rather than Japanese ones, the quality of their performances leaves the issue fairly irrelevant.
However, where the movie falls down a little is in the actual plot itself. Based on the novel by Arthur Golden, the storyline theoretically offers a roller-coaster of emotions – a story of an orphan turning into one of the most famous women in her field through years of striving really should have us rooting for Sayuri throughout. There are essentially three elements to the film – the potential romance between her and Watanabe’s character, her personal struggles and ascent in the geisha world, and an education in the tradition. The second and third parts come across very well – it is a pleasure to gain an insight into the culture, albeit through Westerners’ eyes, and the strongest part of the storyline is Sayuri’s rivalry with Hatsumomo which is sometimes truly thrilling. However, it is the romance which really falls flat – despite the reason behind all of her hard work, it’s difficult to feel little more than apathy over whether or not she gets her man.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautiful film to be visually savoured throughout . However, despite a potentially moving storyline and some great performances, it never manages to pull on the heart-strings with much enthusiasm.