MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA directed by Rob Marshall, written by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright from Arthur Golden's novel, with Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Koji Yakusho and Youki Kudoh. Presented by Columbia, DreamWorks and Spyglass Entertainment. 140 minutes. Opens Friday (December 8). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NN
Director Rob Marshall is a man of the theatre - more specifically, of the musical theatre. He directed the clever film adaptation of Chicago, and Annie for TV. He choreographed the stage musical Kiss Of The Spiderwoman and the revival of Cabaret.
The guy probably greets people with jazz hands.
So it's no surprise that the most memorable scenes in Memoirs Of A Geisha are essentially production numbers. Whether he's showing us a young apprentice geisha being transformed with makeup and elegant kimono or a dance number so over the top it resembles an haute couture runway show, Marshall's let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm comes blaringly through.
Problem is, Arthur Golden's 1997 bestseller has nothing to do with Broadway brashness. The book is an intricately detailed look at the geisha's life, full of decorum and rigid rules.
After being whisked away from their parents and their fishing village home, Chiyo and her sister Satsu are separated in Kyoto. Chiyo grows up in an okiya - a house for geisha - while Satsu, we later learn, becomes a prostitute.
If you strip away Golden's well-researched details about geisha life, his novel is essentially Cinderella wrapped in a kimono.
Chiyo is mistreated by the okiya's dragon lady matron, Mother (Kaori Momoi), and especially by the house's resident geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), who senses a potential rival. After a botched escape attempt, Chiyo is reduced to being a maid, until she's rescued by Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), a fairy godmother figure who takes her on as an apprentice geisha.
And, yes, once Chiyo becomes a geisha and is renamed Sayuri, she encounters two very different Prince Charming types, the disfigured but obviously smitten Nobu (Koji Yakusho) and the handsome but mysterious Chairman (Ken Watanabe).
As with many popular novels, this adaptation feels so reverent it's virtually lifeless. Not only does voice-over narration delicately guide us through each change in the cherry blossom trees, but frequently the characters mouth exposition.
The best English-speaking actors might possibly get away with delivering clunky dialogue. But Marshall's pan-Asian cast speak with such a mishmash of accents that the film occasionally resembles a play performed by ESL students.
It feels cruel to watch some actors - especially lead Ziyi Zhang and Gong - pronounce words phonetically when they're so expressive in their own language.
If Marshall could reconstruct 1930s Kyoto in Culver City, California, couldn't he, or producer Steven Spielberg, have hired a decent voice coach so the accents were at least consistent?
Or better yet, since the story is set in Japan, why not hire Japanese actors and let them speak Japanese?
Zhang, as ever, has a lovely presence, and she's especially expressive when being coy, eyes turned seductively downward. But she lacks Yeoh's grace or dignity to suggest womanliness or sensuality.
The film does fill in the character of the Chairman, whose sketchiness was the book's main weakness. Here, he's more prominent, albeit with piping pan flutes and Yo-Yo Ma's cello underlying everything melodramatically.
Too bad a crucial scene showing Sayuri losing her virginity is botched. In the book it's chilling; here it's merely sad.
I'm not sure Spielberg, once attached as director, could have done a better job. He's good at underdog fairy tales, but he's not a great director of women.
What the book needed was a strong female director, like Julie Taymor, to rethink the piece visually. What we have instead is an Audiobooks version read by the cream of Chinese cinema.