December 21, 2005
Section: Living
Page: 1C, 6C

'Geisha' entices
Jack Garner

Jack Garner

Staff film critic

Exotic allure, breathtaking beauty, skillful artistry and a desire to delight are the traditional gifts of the Japanese geisha. They're also fitting descriptions of Memoirs of a Geisha, Rob Marshall's enticing film, based on the best-selling novel about a geisha's life.

Indeed, in terms of pure beauty, Memoirs of a Geisha is among the most gorgeous films ever created, a magnificent cherry blossom of a movie, evoking the lovely mysteries of geisha life.

Although novelist Arthur Golden, director Marshall and even composer John Williams are Western men, the language on screen is English, and the three leading Japanese characters are played by Chinese actors, Memoirs generates the ambiance of authenticity.

Ziyi Zhang stars as Sayuri, who, as the daughter of a poor Japanese fisherman, has been sold into geisha servitude. The film follows Sayuri from childhood to early middle age, from 1929 to the early '50s, as she learns the conversation skills, the precise movements, the tea ceremony, the musicianship and the artistry of a geisha. Unknowledgeable filmgoers learn quickly that geishas make a science and an art form out of companionship. They're not prostitutes.

As Sayuri serves her apprenticeship, she is taken under the wing of a caring mentor (Michelle Yeoh), while combating the snide remarks and underhanded backstabbing of a defiant rival (Gong Li). Sayuri also learns a hard lesson - that although geishas live to serve the men who employ them, they may never fall in love.

This becomes an impossible task, once Sayuri meets the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a powerful but kind businessman.

Director Marshall comes to Memoirs fresh from the Oscar-winning musical Chicago, and the films have more in common than one might initially surmise.

Music and dance are key in both, and each film purposely constructs a lovely artifice, an iconic myth far removed from day-to-day reality. Once again, Marshall succeeds, though Memoirs is probably 20 minutes too long.

The Chinese casting has stirred controversy, due to long-troubled Sino-Japanese relationships. Yet, I can't imagine more skillful and evocative performances than those given by Zhang, Gong and Yeoh. (All three are among the most famous and popular actors in Asia, and are better known in the West, by far, than any Japanese performers.)

Zhang's portrait of Sayuri moves smoothly from fear and insecurity to confidence and comfort; Gong brings sharpened fangs to the role of the spiteful competitor; and Yeoh suggests experience and faith as the veteran mentor.

Each helps make Memoirs of a Geisha a sumptuous, radiant pleasure.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li.

Director: Rob Marshall.

Opens: Friday.

Length: 145 minutes.

Rated: PG-13, adult themes, implied sex.

Web: memoirsofageisha.

Jack's rating: With 10 as a must-see, this film rates 9

Topping it off

Dave Brown of Dave Brown the Hatter in Henrietta designed the men's fedoras for Memoirs of a Geisha. His work has been featured in other films, including Chicago, Road to Perdition, Catch Me if You Can, Mulholland Drive and O Brother, Where Art Thou?