Beautiful China Doll | Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) Review

Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh

If you were to accuse me of disliking this film simply because it’s an insensitive American portrayal of an Asian culture, my only objection would be the word “dislike.” I disliked the movie the first time I saw it, in high school as part of AP English Literature – parents, if you were wondering what your kids are getting up to at school – where we also read the book. I didn’t remember much, other than it wasn’t that good but the Spielbergian style was sort of amusing. Well, TVs back in 2011 sucked, especially ones wheeled into public school classrooms. I don’t know what I saw in even the cinematography. No, the word is hate. This is, quite possibly, the worst movie I’ve ever seen.

Memoirs of a Geisha is a lumpy adaptation of its, at best, controversial source material, whose first 30 minutes are eaten up by a story about two separated sisters trying to reunite. After that, the whole sister thing goes away. I guess the Michelle Yeoh character is supposed to “replace” the heroine’s actual sister as a mentor figure, but the analogy doesn’t work. The two relationships share too few emotions. And as exciting as a reunion of Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi might sound after Crouching Tiger, well, brace yourself. Ziyi turns in an uncharacteristically awful performance, speaking in a perpetual half-whisper and pushing the emotions out with her face. She has these colored contact lenses to make her eyes blue, which suggests that the character, Chiyo, had to be made special somehow to make her distinct. And the only way to do that was clearly visually, and not, you know, with character.

This film is beneath Zhang Ziyi, and Michelle Yeoh, and especially Gong Li. It’s a well-documented insult to Japanese women and Japan as a whole. And don’t ask me! But I have been reflecting lately on how I write about America and Asian countries, whether I’m too harsh with one and too lovey-dovey with the other(s). In this case, all the problems of the film – which are legion – stem entirely from its outsider perspective. This is a Western look at Japan that inevitably finds room for World War II. So much is presumed and invented, and so much relies on or contributes to stereotype. These geishas are really dumb, incredibly petty, and gain zero wisdom no matter how much time passes – how much history they witness.

The story fails to position itself at the perspective of its titular geisha, being far more interested in defining the experience in relation to other people. It takes a typical Hollywood structure, about retrieving lost family and then finding true but forbidden love, and transplants it to the sensual realm of the geisha, making for a stupefying and exhausting superficial treatment that spans more than two hours. Chiyo’s motivations and thought process are familiar to us, an American audience, and this is an unhelpful fantasy. At the outbreak of World War II, the geishas go away for a while, and this… is a bad thing? Sure, even this depiction of geishas can’t escape the inherent sexual violence of the profession, and there is no option for true love, but it was a better time! Right? Or at least, an earlier one. I have no earthly idea what the point of this movie was.

Even as an enticing, sensual realm, it fails. Nevertheless tinged with inappropriate nostalgia, the film is shallow and murky. When the camera isn’t busy identifying the flattest possible composition for each scene, we navigate period Japan like an alien planet. The interiors have no sense of dimension or order, and what I’d earlier confused as a Spielbergian style just felt like artifice this time. It’s the love story between an adult man and a very young girl trained to serve male sexual desire, it’s the movie where all the Japanese characters are played by Chinese actresses, and it’s a wonder that it was ever taken seriously.


2 thoughts on “Beautiful China Doll | Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s