WARNING: Spoilers ahead...proceed at your own risk :-)
I absolutely loved the book Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and was eagerly awaiting the movie version. It took a while for the movie to release in India, but the wait was worth it, or was it?
Technically brilliant, visually sweeping, the celluloid version of the well loved story of the trials and tribulations of Chiyo, the daughter of a fisher man, a girl with eyes like water who was to become a celebrated geisha Sayuri was engrossing and engaging, yet it lacked the soul, the emotions so vividly portrayed by Golden in his book.
The movie starts exactly like the book where on a stormy night nine year old Chiyo and her elder sister were sold off by their father to a stranger who brings them to Kyoto. There the pretty Chiyo(debutante Suzuka Ohgo) get accepted in the Nitta okiya while her plain sister goes to a common brothel. Chiyo's journey to become the most accomplished Geisha Sayuri ( Ziyi Zhang) of her time had its share of trauma in the hands of the cold hearted matron of the okiya and the mindless jealousy of beautiful Hatsumomo (a fabulous Gong Li). Her chance meeting with the much older Chairman (Ken Watanabe) inspires her want to become a Geisha only to be able to get close to him. She remains a servant girl at the okiya for a long time, until another matron Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) turns her mentor and insists on converting her into one of the most desired of geishas.
Mameha's mentoring comprises tips on how to get and keep a man's attention, beauty makeovers ("agony and beauty go side by side"), tutoring in dance and conversation and explaining the real meaning of a geisha. Mameha and Chiyo take us right in the tearoom with the geisha; we are there as she gracefully fights for her life in a social situation where careers are made or destroyed by a witticism, a too-revealing (or not revealing enough) glimpse of flesh under the kimono, or a vicious rumor spread by a rival.
Strangely, while we are repeatedly told that geishas are "moving works of art, who do not sell their bodies," we see Sayuri's virginity auctioned to the highest bidder. There is a cold cruelty in the mechanics of the trade - from rivalry to the nonchalance and manipulation with which a girl's virginity is sold.The movie ends rather abruptly where out of nowhere the Chairman decides to profess his affection for Sayuri. It was the weakest scene of the movie. It could hardly portray the passion of expressing years of pent up feelings and ends up as an awkward finale to a rather grand arrangement.
Performance wise young Suzuka Ohgo steals the show as Chiyo. Her earnest face and expressive eyes draws you in and makes you want to protect her from all the cruelties in this world. Ziyi Zhang as Sayuri is beautiful in a mesmerizing way and with her limited knowledge of English was as effective as she could be. Gong Li is absolutely fabulous as the insanely jealous Hatsumomo... she is the diva here, imperious, vicious, being cruel to Zhang. She's fun to watch. Michelle Yeoh as Mameha is the only actress who has any command over English and does full justice to her role albeit slightly bland. I loved Ken Watanabe in the Last Samurai. Here he was wooden and one dimensional and looked extremely uncomfortable kissing the bewitching Ziyi Zhang!!
Beautiful locales and sets, lavish costumes and eye candy actors make Memoirs a lush period film that is simultaneously gorgeous and dissatisfying!