The Junk Food of Writing

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Gung Ho-rrible (this film doesn't deserve a better pun)

Memoirs of a Geisha (Marshall, 2005)

Zhang Ziyi and Ken Watanabe are practicing their grips for when they strangle the filmmakers

Culturally obtuse, ideologically repugnant, emotionally flat and shamelessly melodramatic, Memoirs of a Geisha features just as much jealousy-induced, catty bitchery as "Showgirls" and "Mean Girls." Its narrative structure is actually a shockingly similar mixture of the two. What Memoirs of a Geisha fails to realize is that these other two films were satires. Geisha, unfortunately for any astute audience member, attempts to play this childish antagonism straight. Even worse, the film terribly overdramatizes ever moment. The pulsating score overplays such silly events which, essentially, are mere juvenile pranks and common back-stabbing.

In a crucial scene which is meant to establish Zhang Ziyi’s Sayuri reputation as a highly desired geisha, Sayuri performs a wintry dance on a blue-tinted stage. A simulation (a word that constantly pops up in the mind of the viewer) of a snowstorm begins and the actress flails around the platform as if she is an epileptic having a seizure in a blizzard. This is a jarring scene of poor editing, pretty lights, and embarrassing choreography (I’ll avoid a Chicago comment here). The audience within the film seems extremely impressed and moved, yet the only profound aspect of the performance is how profoundly graceless it is.

Sayuri's liquid blue eyes, which are the key to her beauty in La-La land (a.k.a the Western version of Japan), are so apparently color-contacts that you cannot help but scream "liar" when she replies that she received those eyes from her mother. She obviously got them from her optometrist. This may seem a persnickety complaint, but it is quite pertinent since this complaint of inauthentic beauty can be extended to the whole artificially lush and deeply unconvincing production.

The main flaw in the film is its attempt to make the Japanese culture accessible to Americans; it has undergone the garish Hollywood treatment five times over. Do you recall the devastating restraint and subtlety in classic Japanese films? The producers are banking on the fact that you do not. Memoirs of a Geisha is as oriental and tasteless as a package of Ramen noodles

The cultural aspects, which are terribly manufactured, are mostly glossed over in favor of vacuous visual flair and an insipid love story which fails to be either interesting or unpredictable. The bit (and I mean very tiny bit) of insight we see into the role of a geisha is in the form of a trite training sequence. These ‘Intro to the Geisha 101’ moments are generically played for laughs, due to Sayuri's ineptness (yes, we even get the obligatory fall in heels, Ms. Congeniality-style). Oh, I did learn that Geisha’s take a really long time to get dressed, since they were extreme amounts of clothing. It is strange how a film with so many layers of clothing could have no idea what cinematic layers are.

After an American invasion begins the third act of the film, Sayuri’s Japanese village, Kyoto, apparently suffers from culture shock. Ironically, the village had already been westernized (read: bastardized) throughout the previous two acts. The American colonization is portrayed as if Kyoto has simply become the most desired Spring break destination. This isn’t colonization, this is Cancun-ization. Oh, and apparently there was some sort of war – I’m not really certain, and the film makes sure that there is a lack of clarity.

The script is also awkwardly westernized; the characters even use American colloquialisms! “There are other fish in the sea,” utters the benevolent Mameha, who is played by the only actress who seems to have a grasp on the English language, Michelle Yeoh. I would rather not complain about the controversial casting choices; I am more offended by the use of English than the casting of non-Japanese actresses (after all, Texan Renee Zellweger played the Brit chick Bridget Jones to perfection). Consistently throughout the film, I desperately urged to hear these actresses speak in their native tongues.

There is an ongoing and completely overt metaphor of running water, which symbolizes Sayuri’s adaptability and tenacity (which is hardly accurate in the first place, because Sayuri is a rather weak character). About four characters denote the "water" in Sayuri's eyes as if the explicit explanation of the metaphor at the beginning of the film did not suffice. This type of patronization and lack of subtlety is exhibited throughout the film. After a moment of loss and defeat, Sayuri tosses a token of affection off a cliff (a gorgeous, lush cliff, of course). This act of despair is followed by a cut to a stagnant pond, which is ham-fisted imagery meant to symbolize the stalled Sayuri’s lack of hope. Aptly, the film itself is identical to this body of water: it is beautiful, shallow and completely inert. D, (2.5/10)


  • Best review you've ever written (I love it when you hate movies). I was laughing about your comments on her eyes ("Liar!") - yes, what the hell were they trying to say with all that?

    Now the hard part begins, while we watch the film pick up dozens of awards and nominations.

    Oh, bonus points for praising Zellwegger's Bridget Jones.

    By Blogger Ali, at 3:49 PM  

  • Yikes -- I simply cannot see it winning awards.

    Oh no, I actually can.


    Oh, and I forgot to add my comment on what the dance resembled to me. I just edited it into the second paragraph.

    By Blogger Nick M., at 4:05 PM  

  • Clearly this person hates just about everything aside from movies made by Woody Allen. I truly hope that this person is an expert in regard to Asian affairs. Oops, he is not! This conceited "writer" has done it again.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:38 PM  

  • Aw... You seem to have a secret admirer, Nick.

    By Blogger Ali, at 10:09 PM  

  • If he hates my journal so much, I wonder why he keeps returning to it.

    By Blogger Nick M., at 11:38 PM  

  • Oh, and if this person is still wandering around my blog, let me clarify one thing: I never claimed to be an Asian expert. I claim to be a person who is INTERESTED in the culture. When a film so embedded in a culture fails to teach the audience anything about the culture beyond their pretty pink trees, then I have to express my disappointment.

    Teaching something new in a film and not just recycling the Hollywood paradigm in another setting? What an idea!

    By Blogger Nick M., at 11:48 PM  

  • I knew this would be awfully Hollywood, but I still want to see it despite the disappointment of both you and Ali. I mean, seeing Zhang Ziyi has to at least be worth the price of admission.

    By Blogger Kathleen, at 8:04 AM  

  • Nice blog, homo.

    By Blogger Matthew Thomas, at 8:36 AM  

  • Zooey!

    Where have you been? I suppose my wish of having you fall off the face of the earth did not come to fruition, after all.

    Good to see you around, vain bastard.

    By Blogger Nick M., at 9:37 AM  

  • Nope, I'm not dead yet, you evil bastard. Just staying away from internet the last months, is all.

    Very entertaining review. Haven't seen the movie yet, and I'll probably skip with all the other rotten reviews on the All-Knowing Tomatometer. Can't stand those Asians, anyway.

    It's good to see you around too, prick.

    By Blogger Matthew Thomas, at 1:59 PM  

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