Simultaneously gorgeous and forgettable, sentimental and prurient, Rob Marshall's razzle-dazzle adaptation of Arthur Golden's controversial 1997 best-seller is a glitteringly theatrical piece of orientalist kitsch rooted in Western fantasies about Japan's "floating world" — the demimonde of geishas, courtesans and performers who cater to the sensual nature....read more
Simultaneously gorgeous and forgettable, sentimental and prurient, Rob Marshall's razzle-dazzle adaptation of Arthur Golden's controversial 1997 best-seller is a glitteringly theatrical piece of orientalist kitsch rooted in Western fantasies about Japan's "floating world" — the demimonde of geishas, courtesans and performers who cater to the sensual nature. It opens on a dark and stormy night, as an impoverished fisherman with a dying wife sells his two pubescent daughters to a procurer for an Osaka okiya — a geisha house. Willful Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), who has unusual slate-blue eyes, is accepted, while her older sister is banished to a common brothel. Chiyo befriends fellow potential geisha Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum); runs afoul of spiteful, volatile queen bee Hatsumomo (Gong Li, channeling the hard-as-nails vibe of a young Joan Crawford); and enrages "Mother" (Kaori Momoi), the okiya owner, with her chronic disobedience. But just as Chiyo seems doomed to spend her life as Mother's reviled servant, fate offers a glimmer of hope. A kindly stranger, The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), spots Chiyo crying on a footbridge and gives her a cherry ice, money and some advice: Life's setbacks are only temporary, he counsels, and when you fall you must pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. Years later, 15-year-old Chiyo is wrested from Mother's control by Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Hatsumomo's only real competition. Afraid of what will ensue if the aging Mother turns over her house to now-grown Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), whom everyone knows is beholden to the hateful Hatsumomo, Mameha intends to mold Chiyo into a world-class geisha so Mother will choose her instead. Chiyo's transformation from caterpillar into a butterfly renamed Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi) is by far the film's most entertaining segment — a riot of gorgeous silks, torturous beauty rituals and ruthless machinations delivered with a painted smile and the flutter of a pale wrist. But it squanders the melodramatic momentum it builds up in an overlong third act in which World War II transforms Japan's cultural landscape and dooms traditional geisha culture. The specter of what the late critic Edward Said dubbed "Orientalism" inevitably hangs heavily over the entire business, and while the days in which white actors taped back their eyes to play Asian are gone, three of the film's four female leads — Zhang, Gong and Yeoh — are conspicuously Chinese; the more you mull over the argument that at least they're Asian and most Westerners can't tell the difference anyway, the worse it sounds.