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Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Japanese culture is ransacked and pillaged much like a whorish sideshow in the searingly bad Memoirs of a Geisha. If a live-action culmination of every culturally tasteless Disney movie from the past fifteen years (Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan) were ever to come into existence, this is it. Sure, the film looks good, and it’s three technical Oscars were all somewhat deserved. But strip away all the pretty colors and sets, and you have a story about as truly meaningful as the kitschy feel-good paragraphs on the back of any given cereal box. The flimsy she-loves-him, he-loves-her-not, he-loves her storyline that propels this series of unfortunate events from start to finish could exist, with minor tweaking, in any place and at any time; the pretty Japanese colors and lights are but window dressings. Of course, how many people in the intended audience would know that, or would even care in the first place?

Oh, to reminisce of the days of being a geisha! Since when was being a high-class whore so nostalgic? Since razzle-dazzle director Robert Marshall got his hands on the material, for starters. His Chicago was utterly soulless, but so were it’s convicted female protagonists. Memoirs of a Geisha, on the other hand, yearns for a heart and spirit, but fancy art direction and flashy cinematography will have to suffice while the screenwriters get a clue. The flimsy characters only pander to Marshall's reductive direction: villainous characters here could easily be mistaken for their intentionally satirized equivalents in the parody film Kung Fu Hustle. In keeping with the film’s pandering to western audiences, the less romantic aspects of the geisha lifestyle are largely ignored, while those that are acknowledged are reduced to the irritating squabbling of drunk sorority girls. I’m less ready to deride the casting of Chinese actresses in Japanese roles; hell, Al Pacino pulled off playing Tony Montana, and the real essence of acting lies in playing a person that you are not. However, the choice to make the film not in its native Japanese tongue, but badly broken English, takes what would have already been a shallow storyline and reduces it to the kind of atrociously bad camp that even SNL can’t pull off anymore.

When the film isn’t spreading bad eastern stereotypes via it’s Japanese actress playing American perceptions of Chinese actresses, it concerns itself with the story of Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo as a child, Ziyi Zhang as an adult), a young girl sold as a child to the geisha house. After quickly overcoming her familial losses, she accepts her new lifestyle and yearns to become one of the prestigious geishas. This is so she may capture the heart of a man, an esteemed chairman (Ken Watanabe), with whom she instantly falls in love with during an early encounter in her new environment. Where the film falls short (read: crashes and burns violently) is in it’s refusal and inability to concern itself with the emotional and psychological aspects of its story, reducing these elements to badly deconstructed dialogue and soap opera plotting; this way, the visual aesthetics can take center stage. Indeed, this is less of a film than a theatrical circus act, with Japanese culture as the freakshow on display for American audiences to lap up. What we have here is world culture filtered through a tasteless lens that doesn’t want to understand or observe, but only to gawk and pillage. If this kind of abhorrent cinematic imperialism plays out as it usually does, chances are we’ll see “Memoirs of a Geisha: On Ice” within the very near future.