When she’s still a little girl, washing clothes and running errands as a servant for the glamorous women of a Kyoto geisha house, the plucky heroine of “Memoirs of a Geisha” gets an important bit of advice:
“If she’s not properly dressed,” her hard-driving boss tells her, “she is not a true geisha.”
It seems everyone involved with the movie was paying attention to those words, as well. An obsession with appearance and detail permeates every second of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” to breathtaking effect. Words like “vivid” and “lush” don’t do it justice; you truly feel as if you’ve been transported to another world.
In bringing Arthur Golden’s best-selling, faux-insider novel to the screen, director Rob Marshall has created a fluid, rapturous work — not surprising from the man who razzle-dazzled us with the Oscar-winning “Chicago.”
If you don’t bother to strip away the layers of makeup and silk, you’ll be thoroughly mesmerized. But beyond the rich fabrics, elaborate set design and romantic John Williams score — with cello solos from Yo-Yo Ma and violin solos from Itzhak Perlman — there’s little depth.
Ziyi Zhang’s scrappy young Chiyo — renamed Sayuri once she becomes a geisha — learns from her mentor Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) that geishas are not courtesans and not wives, but living, breathing works of art trained to elegantly entertain. And Mameha warns her that they’re certainly not allowed to fall in love — which Sayuri did long ago, with the Chairman (Ken Watanabe).
But we never truly feel Sayuri’s pain — the sense of being trapped in a life she was sold into — because she’d long dreamed of the glamorous trappings, and she thrives as a geisha. Marshall glosses over her anguish in favor of breathy voiceover and stylized aesthetics.
Naturally, writers Robin Swicord and Doug Wright had to condense Golden’s book, which likely will trouble purists. There’s also the raging debate over the casting of non-Japanese actresses in the lead roles — a who’s-who of ravishing Asian superstars to rival Wong Kar-wai’s “2046,” including Zhang and Gong Li (who are Chinese) and Yeoh (who’s Malaysian and Chinese).
None of this matters if you approach the film purely as escapist entertainment. In that regard, it’s more than satisfying.
As Sayuri, the uber-geisha in training during pre-World War II Japan, Zhang gets to strut and flirt and pout, and she does it radiantly. The obligatory montage that highlights her transformation from orphaned maid to outrageous diva is cliched but thrillingly staged, as she learns how to walk, dance and play music like the charming companions of the time.
“You are a magnificent geisha,” the tranquil, wise Mameha assures her in the warm tones of a self-help guru.
And it’s true — so much so that she threatens to usurp Gong’s Matsumomo, another prominent geisha and Mameha’s rival.
Gong, the longtime favorite of Chinese director Zhang Yimou in her first English-language role, clearly had a blast vamping it up. She’s a tempest of treachery, insecurity and manipulation.
While Sayuri is being pitted against her one-time best friend, Matsumomo’s protege Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh, who actually is Japanese), she secretly hopes to attract the interest of the Chairman. She has been pining for him ever since he comforted her as a child crying alone on a footbridge.
But as she makes her much-anticipated debut before a crowded audience — a performance that’s part coming-out party, part Vegas showgirl routine — Sayuri draws the interest of every man in the room. Her act is a swirl of blue lighting, fake snow and impossibly high platform flip-flops, one that will surely send drag queens scurrying to their mirrors to hone their own routines — regardless of their ethnic origin.