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December 14-20, 2005

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Memoirs of a Geisha

Kimono Ripper: Zhang Ziyi and Ken Watanabe can't quite overcome the obstacles to their love in 'Memoirs of a Geisha.'

Tea Garden

Rob Marshall's adaptation of 'Memoirs of a Geisha' offers more snooze than sizzle

By Richard von Busack

THE FILM season's most potent barbiturate, Memoirs of a Geisha, invites the viewer for a post-turkey snooze. The movie is the most misguided attempt to colonize this particular realm since Shirley MacLaine played My Geisha. Arthur Golden's novel was beloved for the fun facts it provided about the geisha life and the stories of how the unpowdered nape of a neck could be an erogenous zone. Mostly what attracted readers was the old-fashionedness of the tale: a poor fisherman's daughter becomes the great geisha Sayuri, who faces the decline of her circumstances and her art after World War II. Her fixed star during this voyage through life is a love affair, but with a man she cannot have.

Another problem Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) faces during the American occupation is the constant misunderstanding of those who believe that geishas are whores, not artists. They're not!, the film insists, but then Memoirs of a Geisha includes a subplot about our heroine selling her maidenhead for a round of "the eel and the cave" with the highest bidder.

Rob Marshall (Chicago) directed this deracinated kimono-ripper. While Memoirs of a Geisha doesn't have enough spirit to be a really bad movie, it's depressing, since it is bound to be the first "Japanese" film lots of our enlightened fellow citizens will have seen. This, a trip to Benihana's and a couple of episodes of Samurai Jack will just about do it for them. They will never have been exposed to Ozu or Mizoguchi. You want to see kimonos? Try Kon Ichikawa's 1983 The Makioka Sisters, a Jane Austenish study of one beautifully silk-wrapped family.

As for this holiday epic, it is static and cold. The local locations don't help. The Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park seems like what it is, a hard-trodden tourist attraction. A Japanese city set, built in Southern California, is also all too reminiscent of a certain tragic Nipponese-themed deer park that once stood in Orange County. The ESL-school dialogue isn't aided by any visual flair or by the type of acting that ought to be as big as the posters for this film. (The massive posters are stunning. The zombielike calm of the geisha, no doubt crying underneath the face powder, are well suggested in that one image of Ziyi Zhang. The film can't live up to it.)

As the man she can't have, Ken Watanabe is the new Yul Brynner—playing exotic through facial paralysis. While hers is a similarly monotonous performance, Gong Li does get some fun out of playing the sadistic geisha Hatsumomo; after all the films where Li was put through the wringer, she finally gets a chance to deal out the punishment. Hatsumomo is Joan Crawford's Eastern cousin, beating the tar out of our poor heroine for everything but using wire hangers. Although she's Malaysian/Chinese, Michelle Yeoh seems the most authentic geisha as Hatsumomo's archrival Mameha. Yeoh has the most maternal quality, that is—and surely that mothering is part of what a geisha gives her clients, in addition to the illusion of attention, plus allowing exhausted men the sense of being in touch with the eternalness of art.

Memoirs of a Geisha may not be eternal, but it certainly seems like it during the running time. The knee-walking reverence with which a middle-of-the-road director approaches a much-loved best seller can only end in one thing: a film of exquisite tedium.

Movie Times Memoirs of a Geisha (PG-13; 137 min.), directed by Rob Marshall, written by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright, based on the novel by Arthur Golden, photographed by Dion Beebe and starring Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanable and Michelle Yeoh, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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