by Luke Baumgarten & r & Memoirs of a Geisha & r & In the tradition of Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Yimou Zhang (Hero and House of Flying Daggers) and other modern Wu Xia revivalists, director Rob Marshall has created a visual banquet in Memoirs of a Geisha. His colors are bold and primary, shifting to reflect everything from the seasons to the emotions of his characters to the very tone of the story itself. This creates highly complex, multi-layered and often painfully vital image patterns that leap from the screen. Indeed, in the first two-thirds of Memoirs of a Geisha, the piling-on of literal and figurative elements is almost overwhelming. Marshall uses rain to descend across the screen like a black curtain -- mimicking the abbreviated sight of young Sayuri's (Suzuka Ohgo) life without her sister -- and, later, to cover older Sayuri's (Ziyi Zhang) world in the muddy brown of the imperial Japanese army.
While they're startling initially, Marshall's images begin to fall flat as the movie wears on. I suppose you could make the argument that the gradual loss of this highly symbolic visual language almost pantomimes the crumbling of Imperial Japan, which was symbol-rich itself, but that's not very convincing, as the movement is neither gradual nor perfectly abrupt. Marshall's flourishes still pop up after Japan loses the war, as if he's trying to reignite the magic he found in the film's first two acts. No, these uninspired later scenes parallel the audience's realization that the visual grandeur of Geisha's first two acts promised a depth of narrative that just doesn't exist. There's no real, overarching conflict in Sayuri's story. Memoirs is really more like a bunch of little conflicts, each initially daunting, but easily resolved. This is perhaps because there are so many little hiccups in Sayuri's quest to be a geisha that dawdling on any one, or weaving one throughout the whole film, would have made the film prohibitively long. Rather than cut out a few of these, screenwriters Robin Swicord and Doug Wright leave them in, creating a succession of easily overcome hurdles that make Sayuri's life seem oddly charmed. In turn, unfortunately, they also make her story hollow.
Granted, each of these vignettes points to a very specific aspect of Japanese life (the complexities of imperial society, its stratification, the lack of children's rights, the lack of women's rights, etc.), but in trying to encompass all the problems of class and culture in imperial Japan, the barrage only serves to neuter the film's emotional impact. Sayuri rises so quickly and with so much esteem, it doesn't really feel as if she is having a very rough time of it at all, despite being little more than a slave. She's left without her sister, but it's on to the next hardship so quickly that it's hard to feel too sorry for her. Worse, there's no sense that these wrongs are stacking on each other, leaving any deeper psychological trauma. One thing simply happens, then another, then another, until the film -- eventually -- ends.
In the opening scene, as we see her younger self sold into bondage, an aging Sayuri (voiced by Shizuko Hoshi) muses, "a tale like mine should never be told." I have to agree. Not without a significant rewrite, at least.