Movie review: ‘Memoirs of a Geisha'

2 stars (out of four)

Drooling, babbling silk fetishists will be scraped off the floors of hundreds of multiplexes this weekend, thanks to "Memoirs of a Geisha." You know who you are, even if the authorities do not.

Nothing against kimonos, especially kimonos this exquisite, but director Rob Marshall's pageantry-plus adaptation of the Arthur Golden bestseller is all fabric and no flesh, a case of pretty pictures relaying the basics of a story beloved by book clubs the world over. The images do not, however, add up to a moving or expressive film. Golden's straightforwardly involving prose, while no great shakes, has been replaced by an extremely fussy affair that is, in effect, its own silk-wrapped pictorial novelization.

In case you missed book club that year, "Geisha" follows the fortunes of Chiyo, daughter of a poor fisherman living on the edge of the Sea of Japan. Chiyo and her sister Satsu are shipped off to Kyoto to become, respectively, a geisha and a prostitute. Chiyo transforms into Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), and as she becomes better and better schooled in the fine arts and crafts of geishadom, she does not lack for fire-breathing rivals. The primary troublemaker is played by Gong Li. Sayuri's mentor is played by Michelle Yeoh. Sayuri's lifelong thumpa-thumpa throb, The Chairman, is portrayed by Ken Watanabe.

Marshall's pan-Asian casting has kicked up a fuss among Chinese critics in particular, given Japan's brutal occupation of Nanjing in 1937 and 1938. (One writer on the Chinese Web site, regarding the casting of Chinese actresses Zhang and Gong and Chinese-Malaysian actress Yeoh, said Marshall's ensemble constitutes "a loss of face.") It's a slippery question: At what point does a performer's right to play a culturally diverse array of parts become a matter of cultural betrayal?

This question may drift across your consciousness while watching "Geisha." More likely you'll notice how little of the dialogue trips easily off anyone's tongue, nationalities aside. Screenwriter Robin Swicord, with an assist from "I Am My Own Wife" playwright Doug Wright, boils down the book's sweep and melodramatic square-offs to the bone, leaning heavily on such zingers as: "Hatsumomo! That snake!" or rhetorical posers on the order of: "What do you think--a geisha's free to love?"

Marshall, a stage-trained director and choreographer, made a splash with his screen debut three years ago, the film version of the musical "Chicago." He stages "Geisha"--and it does feel stagy, as well as soundstagy--in a style very like that of his previous assignment. The atmosphere never imparts a feeling of a "real" world contrasted with that of a stringently artificial, formal and ritualized life of a geisha. The whole thing feels like a show. Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe favor a lot of claustrophobic telephoto shots, compressing the Kyoto street scenes and interiors but without any dramatic depth. There is, however, one fine image of the snow-capped Kyoto rooftops. And Colleen Atwood's costumes are the best a film adaptation of a popular book can buy.

They rustle like nobody's business. The film itself is equal parts silk and polyester.


`Memoirs of a Geisha'

Directed by Rob Marshall; screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the book by Arthur Golden; cinematography by Dion Beebe; production design by John Myhre; music by John Williams; edited by Pietro Scalia; produced by Lucy Fisher, Steven Spielberg and Douglas Wick. A Dreamworks and Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:25. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature subject matter and some sexual content).

Sayuri - Ziyi Zhang

The Chairman - Ken Watanabe

Mameha - Michelle Yeoh

Hatsumomo - Gong Li

Nobu - Koji Yakusho

Pumpkin - Youki Kudoh

Mother - Kaori Momoi

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