A Tepid Cup Of Tea

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

"Memoirs of a Geisha" is everything you'd expect it to be: beautiful, mesmerizing, tasteful, Japanese. It's just not very hot.

It stars three of the world's most beautiful women -- Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh -- and it's set in the inner world of the geisha, those legendary Japanese figures of beauty and pinned-hair, silken, alabaster-skinned erotic temptation.

Yet it just sits there, glorious but fitfully absorbing, never remotely enticing.

The film never plumbs the allure of the geisha or offers much demonstration of her skills, her ability to enchant. It never establishes why such a woman would be transcendent, almost the female equivalent of the samurai -- a specialist so gifted in her art, so unique in her meanings, that her fame has long since gone global.

Derived from Arthur Golden's phenomenally successful novel, it's the story of Sayuri Nitta, born Chiyo, the daughter of a poor fisherman who becomes one of Japan's most revered geishas in the 1930s, only to lose it all in World War II, then gain it all back in that country's postwar recovery. Golden somehow defied sexual and cultural barriers and acquired the voice of the beautiful, gritty, clever young woman, taking readers deep into an unfamiliar world.

But the book's shortcomings remain the movie's: stately pace, complete unawareness of the larger world beyond the geisha house's doors, anthropological accuracy at the expense of dramatic dynamism and a disinterest, generally, in the relations and attractions of men to women and women to men. Moreover, it skimps on the backstage preparations and the intrigue that many would argue was one of the best things about the book.

Sayuri is played by Zhang, in what can only be called a yeoman performance. This fiery young woman has exploded in nearly everything in which she's appeared since her breakthrough in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but the role of Sayuri lacks the dynamism of those parts, particularly her stunning turn last year as Mei in Zhang Yimou's rapturous, driven "House of Flying Daggers." Here she's limited to the dreary role of the Good Girl (a joy in real life but a pain in the movies), a passive victim to fortune's whimsy and never given a chance to let her full personality assert itself. On the other hand, she serves a mean cup of tea.

As the movie opens, we discover 9-year-old Chiyo (played brilliantly by Suzuka Ohgo) on the most terrible night of her life: Her mother has slipped into coma and will soon die, her impoverished father (Mako) can no longer support her and her sister, and so he sells them to a broker, who cruelly yanks them from their seacoast cottage through a lashing rain (pathetic, symbolic fallacy, anyone?) to the big city. There, he deposits the prettier Chiyo at a geisha house (always in search of new talent) and takes the other girl to a brothel. That is the terrible fate of rural-poor female children in financially uncertain times in Asia before the war: two forms of prostitution, the more-or-less benign (geisha, involving 99 percent performance and 1 percent sex) and the more-or-more malign (whorehouse, involving 99.9999 percent sex and .0001 percent performance). As terrible a passage as it has been, arriving in the former instead of the latter -- like her poor, soon-to-disappear sister -- was still the luckiest night in Chiyo's life. It's also the single most compelling narrative arc in the film.

Though she's brought in to become a geisha, she is rebellious and escape-prone and thus relegated to the bitter role of household slave. But then the young woman's life is changed by a chance encounter. She's in town -- the city is an immaculately reconstructed vision of old Kyoto -- when a gentleman takes an interest in her and buys her a cherry ice. That fellow, the Chairman, played by the Ken Watanabe of "The Last Samurai," is so warm and charming she falls in love. When she sees he's accompanied by a beautiful geisha, she decides herself to become a beautiful geisha, in hopes of someday winning his heart. But -- a dramatic flaw -- Watanabe's character never comes alive. He's always seen from afar, an idealized man soon revealed to be an aristocratic manufacturer. Question: During the war, did he build Zeroes or Bettys or Nambus? It goes unanswered in "Geisha's" blinkered vision.

As part of the blinkering, none of what happens in the movie -- or the book -- confronts the basic notion of geisha, and the movie leaves it to the audience to reject or embrace the concept. A kind of glorified party girl more renowned for wit and provocation than the actual down-and-dirty thang, geisha in the movie are seen as proud and independent, almost like movie stars fighting for popularity. That they exist primarily to fulfill male fantasies of pampered decadence and servitude is not addressed. Be that as it may, for young Chiyo the choices are absolute: slave or geisha.

Early on she meets the woman who will be her lifelong antagonist, the wicked yet undeniably beautiful Hatsumomo. Lucky Gong Li: She gets the juiciest bad-girl movie part in years. Imperious, conniving, brilliant, mean and sexy as hell, Hatsumomo takes an immediate dislike to poor little Chiyo, perhaps because she sees in the youngster's superb bone structure and unusual blue eyes a potential for beauty that will rival her own.

And it's not long in coming, either, as Chiyo, by the magic of director Rob Marshall's ability to bridge decades in seconds, is soon reinvented as Zhang, whose appearance could cause buildings, to say nothing of strong men and us weak ones, to go all fluttery. Soon enough, she's picked by another famous geisha, Mameha (Yeoh), as a mentee and is primed to take over as Kyoto's most famous tea companion. She will win the money that Mameha has paid for her by auctioning off her virginity.

Much of the film chronicles what might be called geisha politics. Robin Swicord's script follows as Mameha and Sayuri chart Sayuri's rise, while Hatsumomo and her protegee, O-Kabo (the round faced Youki Kudoh), counterplot. Whenever Li's Hatsumomo is on screen the movie picks up; her charisma and cruelty may be reprehensible, but they drive the film.

All this is set against the wider, if barely glimpsed, background of elite Japanese industry and politics in the 1930s. That it was a time of turmoil and violence, as various factions clashed over issues of war or peace, industrialization or ruralization, modernization or traditional stability, goes almost thoroughly unexamined. The Chairman seems to wander in now and then, accompanied by Nobu (Koji Yakusho, so memorable in "Shall We Dance"), a man more forthright in his love for Sayuri, yet unsuitable because of a war injury to his face acquired while extending the empire's boundaries in Manchuria.

Yet at no point do the Chairman and Sayuri have what could be called a relationship; they're almost never alone and their conversations are unrevealing. There's only a mute secret adoration of a very young woman for a prosperous, established older man. The whole thing is an idealization.

What is this film selling? What is its prime attraction? It certainly isn't the story, spasmodic as it is. It's more the sense of a secret world penetrated. In fact Marshall (he did the Oscar-winning "Chicago") loves to move his camera forward through doors and down hallways, into inner chambers. There's a sense of going where nobody -- or no Westerner, particularly no Western man -- has gone before. We're in the women's inner sanctum, sensing an ambiance utterly different, where beauty and grace are the center of being, and the placement of the feet in arising from a bow as important as tariff policy or invasion plans.

History comes and goes quickly, as in the book. The war between hard covers seemed to last 10 pages and here it lasts about 10 minutes, and finds Sayuri in a new world, where the power is held by gross, stupid, loud beings called . . . Americans. They must be catered to as well. But "Memoirs of a Geisha," on the screen as well as on paper, seems to lack a dramatic ending; it peters out, rather than ending with a bang.

Memoirs of a Geisha (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for adult themes and sexual innuendo.

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