Memoirs of a Geisha (12A)

VIV THOMAS A story of a young girl taken from a poor fishing village in the late 1920s and transformed into Japan’s leading geisha.


Although 2006 is only two weeks old, I'll be amazed if there is another film released this year which has been so lovingly prepared and more beautifully shot.

Memoirs of a Geisha is a moving, visual feast - a sumptuous painting which has been miraculously transferred to film.

Even more amazing is the fact that Chicago director Rob Marshall has coaxed some very poignant performances from three actresses for whom English is not their first language and in the case of both Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li had to be learned especially for this film.

Can you imagine Reese Witherspoon or Julia Roberts learning Mandarin to appear in a Chinese film? Highly unlikely, but it makes you realise how talented these Chinese actresses are.

There has been a huge fuss in the United States about the fact that Hollywood had chosen Chinese actresses rather than Japanese, but once you are into the film you don't notice. It seems that political correctness has gone beserk. It's rather like complaining that an English actor is playing an American or a Frenchmen. It's absurd.

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The film has also been accused of glamourising prostitution, but as the film makes clear, geisha were never courtesans. They were there to entertain and escort, but not provide sexual favours - although Rob Marshall is not foolish enough to say that this did not happen if the geisha was in the right mood.

What he does show is that the geisha were women of tremendous power, drawn from all walks of life, and able to exert amazing sexual control over Japan's most important figures.

Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a young girl taken from a poor fishing village in the late 1920s and transformed into Japan's leading geisha.

What is fascinating is how the two sides of Japan mixed at that time. On the one hand, here was a society which was still steeped in ancient tradition, of which the geisha was an important part, while in other areas they were already becoming incredibly westernised.

On the personal level, the film's narrative is fuelled by Sayuri's (Ziyi Zhang) drive to become this amazingly idealised woman while dealing with the wicked traps that were being set for her by the very beautiful yet incredibly jealous Hatsumomo (Gong Li).

Martial arts actor Michelle Yeoh plays Sayuri's mentor and prepares her protégé for a life of luxury and discipline.

Rob Marshall wisely lets the actors get on with telling the tale while he dresses up the acting with some stunningly beautiful sets, costumes and allows the camera to record some astonishing attention to detail. It's like a window into another world. The photography is elegant, refined like the geisha themselves and incredibly beautiful.

An amazing piece of work and surprisingly touching. Excellent.

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