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Memoirs of a Geisha: Read Book, (maybe) Watch Film

-Gong Li prepares to throwdown with Zhang ZiYi in Memoirs of A Geisha-

Released in movie theatres everywhere is Memoirs of a Geisha based on the best selling fictional novel of the same name by Arthur Golden. It stars an international cast including Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li and Zhang ZiYi - notice how none of them are of Japanese descent. I'll address that later on.

Chiyo and her older sister get dragged away from their home and are painfully separated to work in different okiya's as geisha. Chiyo is determined to escape to find her sister, but when her attempt fails, she turns her attention to the first man who showed her kindness since arriving. Fast-forward, Chiyo, now Sayuri, must finesse her way through the backstabbing and politics of being one of hundreds of geisha in the district. That is, until she comes across the Chairman, the same man who showed her kindness so many years ago.

While the movie continues to get dragged through the gutter by film critics everywhere, this critic walked in with two word-of-mouth reviews that included the phrases "Geishas, eh." and "A Must See Flop". My review can be summed up by, "If you read the book, you may appreciate the film."

The film is a nice appendix to the book as it stays fairly true to the story. Because it is a memoir, much of the film is slow and somewhat tedious at times which is only saved by its luscious cinematography. There are certain points in the film which those who've read and enjoyed the book would get. Of course that also means much of the book is left competely out of the film making one curious to see how those missing moments may have played out visually.

Performances were disappointingly lacklustre. Zhang ZiYi's Sayuri rise to becoming the top geisha in the district had a flat naive, confused quality to her performance while her younger counterpart, Suzuka Ohgo's Chiyo was played with such fierce passion and fire. Also, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at Zhang's constant convulsing as she attempted to emote. Michelle Yeoh was surprisingly wooden as Mameha, Sayuri's mentor in the geisha sisterhood.

The real treat and perhaps the movie's savior was watching Gong Li consistently steal scenes as Hatsumomo, the resident okiya bitch. You really can't help but like and pity her at the same time. It would definitely have been a much more interesting film if it was based on her memoirs rather than Sayuri's.

I suspended my reality to watch this film simply because one would have to be in that mindset to watch it only in that way. Don't expect to see exactly what goes on in geisha tea houses all over Japan, there is a reason the book is located in the fiction section of the bookstore. Also, the leads all being of Chinese descent (Yeoh is actually Malaysian) created more than just a stir on the casting couch.

The production of the film was constantly plagued by Asians and Asian cinefiles everywhere lambasting the producers due to its improper ethnic casting; Why couldn't they find Japanese leads? I felt mixed about the issue. Let me ask another question; Name a bankable actress of Japanese descent that North American audiences recognize? It was painfully clear that this movie was not made with the Asian audience in mind because if it was, there would probably have been a great deal more sensitivity to casting keeping current international relations in mind. Money talks - cultural/ethnic sensitivities are for gurly men.

Plain english: It's a HOLLYWOOD movie. A thing of whimsy and fantasy. It's not about getting it right, it's about creating entertainment. You may refer to the Bridget Jones debacle when they cast American Renee Zellweger to play the lovable neurotic Brit.

And while I really hated how director Rob Marshall chose to end the movie, I'd probably find a pirated version of the DVD somewhere to own. Though before you watch the film, I'd suggest reading the book first though. You may feel like you got your money's worth in the end.

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