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Memoirs of a Geisha
Review written by: Alex Sandell

Memoirs of Memoirs of a Geisha

In 1997, Memoirs of a Geisha became one of the first, and still one of the only, books I read twice in a row.  I fell in love with the world Arthur Golden painted so well in the canvass of my mind.  The comedy, the tragedy, the romance -- it was equal parts fantastical and brutally real.  When Steven Spielberg decided he would direct the film, I was elated.  Spielberg's style meshed well with Golden's magical best-selling romance. 

Spielberg held onto the idea of directing the film for an admirably long time, but got too caught up in making mediocre movies like The Terminal, War of the Worlds and Munich to bring Geisha to life on the silver screen.  A series of directors were looked at to replace him, including Brett Ratner and Spike Jonze.  While I would have been curious to see what Jonze did with the material, the thought of Ratner -- who had just screwed up the Hannibal Lecter films with the tepid Red Dragon -- helming the project was both a wretched and terrifying prospect. 

After his Best Picture success with the musical Chicago, director Rob Marshall was considered for the project.   Spielberg, who was still producing the picture, thought, "that's our man!"  When it was officially announced that Marshall would be directing Memoirs of a Geisha, I didn't know how to feel.  I loved what he did with Chicago, but would his rapid-fire visuals and razzle dazzle style of directing work for the beloved Geisha?  No matter what, his vision would be better than the "Hallmark Movie of the Week" style of Brett Ratner.  So, while I missed Spielberg, I welcomed Marshall.

Geisha on speed

From the film's thunder-packed, rain-soaked opening sequence; where two screaming young girls are taken away from their heartbroken father, it is clear that Rob Marshall still packs his cameras with gunpowder and fireworks.  The film was obviously not going to be the softer, subtler movie I expected from Spielberg.  Instead it is a whirlwind 145 minute tour through the world of the geisha.  One that rarely stops to take a breath.  The booming soundtrack composed by John Williams would overwhelm most films, but it merely keeps the pace with Marshall's Geisha

Where the novel concentrated on the meticulous details of training oneself to become a geisha, the film focuses on the artistry of these "moving works of art."  It's an interesting take on the novel, but part of the reality is taken away, leaving in its place some gorgeous eye-candy.  The film is at least 30 minutes shorter than the one I imagine Spielberg would have made.  But it is possibly a testament to how much I enjoyed the movie, that I wish it would have been as much as an hour longer, to bring in more of the book (or maybe it's just proof of how much I loved that damned story). 

I've done my fair share of complaining about recent films (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, King Kong, Munich) running longer than their stories warranted.  Memoirs of a Geisha, like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is a movie that needed to be at least 3 hours, but runs a mere two and a half.  Unlike Goblet of Fire, Marshall and screenwriter Robin Swicord include what they need to tell a decent story in 145 minutes, without asking the audience to fill in the blanks.

The story you remember from the novel is mostly all there, albeit condensed.  The filmmakers do such a good job of recreating Golden's writing, I immediately recognized the characters, the buildings, the feelings.  I went through all those emotions again.  As with the book, these characters are partially caricatures and somehow, at the same time, entirely believable.  The story is still disarmingly touching.  In some ways, the movie may be as subtle as a sledgehammer, but it still took me to the world that Golden's book burned into my mind. 

I couldn't be happier with the way the relationship between Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) and the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) played out.  Some critics have said the romance was too "distant."  They may have missed the point.  The Chairman was the dream that kept Sayuri from falling into a downward spiral of despair and self-pity, after losing her mother, father and sister.  He represented hope.  He was a reason to get into the world of geisha, and a way to get out.  But he was blocked by many nearly impenetrable obstacles. 

Maybe a romance maintained from miles away isn't some folk's cup of tea.  Maybe it's been too long since people like my grandparents fell in love and then stayed together only through an occasional letter, throughout the second World War.  Maybe it's too hard for some to remember a world before email, a world before lovers could always find a way to connect.  But if the screening I attended was any indication, some have not forgotten.  Their wasn't a dry eye in the house when the movie ended.  Apparently some don't consider anything too "distant," as long as we keep it close to our hearts. 

Even though the novel it was based on is one of my personal favorites; the movie did not leave me disappointed.  It left me wanting more, but I didn't walk out dissatisfied with what I was given.  How will someone who has not read the book feel about the film?  My mother, who knew nothing of Memoirs of a Geisha, fell in love with the movie.  My friend, who rarely picks up anything weightier than Sports Illustrated, thought the movie was wonderful, and has already been back to see it again, with his wife. 

I feel it's safe to say the film will entertain and enchant you, even if you've never read the book.  Rob Marshall was a risky choice, but the guy pulled it off.  His films are so vibrant and full of life, he's like a producer's insurance against a dozing audience.  And if his pyrotechnics can't keep you alert, John Williams' score will at the very least keep you awake (which is a relief, after Williams' lifeless musical backing for Munich).

Together, the composer and director -- with considerable help from a talented cast and crew -- have created Memoirs of a Geisha on speed.  Entering the film after reading the book is like finding out you paid to race along the rails of a roller-coaster, when you thought you were buying tickets to take a quiet ride through the tunnel of love.  As much as that sounds like a failure, it's the exact opposite.  The film is thrilling, and I can't wait to see it again.   


There's nothing this movie critic likes more than discussing movies with fellow film fanatics. He's even getting better at replying. Agree? Disagree? Doesn't matter. Let's talk film! Email Alex!

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