Memoirs of a man who saw it without reading the book.
4 May 2006
Steven Spielberg was due to direct "Memoirs of a Geisha," but it ended up in the hands of the man who steered Catherine Zeta Jones to an Oscar, Rob Marshall. Maybe if the bearded one (still credited as one of the producers) had stayed in the director's chair, this would have been the powerful drama it aspires to be instead of a soap opera. A beautifully designed, wonderfully shot and gorgeous to look at soap opera, true, but a soap opera nonetheless.

The story of Sayuri's travels from a childhood separated from her sister to her flourishing as a geisha to her post-WWII life, Robin Swicord's script is too uneven and often too surface-skimming to successfully bring over what may well have been a more affecting story in the novel; it hits more often than it misses, and it is moving in a Sunday afternoon movie way (when we see the American soldiers in China and the debasement of the geisha world, it's hard not to feel disgusted), but Ziyi Zhang - stunning though she undoubtedly is - is a bit lost as our heroine, especially when she's appearing opposite Michelle Yeoh as the Svengali to her Trilby and/or Gong Li (energising proceedings whenever she appears, and the real star of the movie) as the eventually former leader of the clubhouse, geisha-wise.

Though ZZ tries hard and never really stinks, you don't really believe she could be so captivating (which is surprising considering her previous films), whereas you never doubt for a second that Gong Li really can make men trip over their own feet just by looking at them - although ironically she never demonstrates it, the way our hero and Miss Yeoh do. Even Youki Kudoh as her best friend Pumpkin fares better.

In fairness, it's not all Ziyi's fault; the movie's got style to burn but not all that much underneath, and the emotional pull the ending should have really isn't there - John Williams's score often has a better grasp of the proceedings than the filmmakers do (in addition to being almost as sumptuous as the female leads), and really should have won the Oscar instead of Gustavo Santaolalla. I'm definitely buying the soundtrack, and I look forward to seeing Ziyi Zhang again... just not in this movie. Missed opportunity, basically.
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