Let me be honest: I love chick flicks. Most movies about romance, tossed in with some goofy comedy or drama, and I’m so there (probably). When I heard about the movie adaptation of a book I’ve heard good things about, I was quite interested in seeing the movie. I’ve never been a fan of Asian cast movies (i.e. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), albeit being Asian myself, but that’s mostly because I thought movies with thick accents would be not so easy to follow.
Well, it turned out that that was the case.
The accents were abstruse, particularly because the protagonist (Ziyi Zhang) doesn’t have a good grasp of English to begin with and in the movie, she as well as the rest of the cast had to also speak with a Japanese accent seeing as they are suppose to be Japanese people in the years before World War II. The names of the characters were hard to decipher, let alone remember. There was Pumpkin, I remember that much, and other characters with titles, not names, that were were easy to remember (Chairman, Baron, for example). And I hate to say it, because I am Asian, but sometimes during the course of the movie, I couldn’t tell anyone apart (other than the blue-eyed Sayuri). At certain points in the movie, I had to ask what the hell was going on. Whilst trying to comprehend who was who and what they were saying, it became at times very confusing.
Now this is not to say the movie is entirely bad. The cinematography was breath-taking. The scenes of Japan were so surreal and serene, so much so that I really wanted to visit Japan one day. The acting wasn’t so bad either, even with my critique about the accents, as they did the best they could given the plot and script. The storyline itself is somewhat generic and incredibly predictable. It’s like a regular “Western movie” but this time, the love story is in a different cultural context. Moreover, maybe it was because it was quite late into the night and I was worried about waking up really early the next day to go Boxing Day shopping, but the movie seemed to drag on and on. I was almost screaming for the the narrator to come on because narration meant time had elapsed in the movie helped hurry things along. Without spoiling the movie, the romance theme in Memoirs of a Geisha was a bit on the disturbing side. I won’t say much, but I’ve seen this kind of theme before in Sin City, although a bit different. The attention to time lapse seems to be a bit off, but maybe that’s just me and I just expect too much of a dramatic appearance change in characters to signify that time has passed. A positive of the movie is that it was enlightening, just to be able to see how things are in a culture I am unfamiliar with. I came into the movie thinking geisha’s were just overly made-up prostitutes (I even commented to my friend, “so she’s going to whore school?” when they were talking about geisha school) but it turns out they aren’t: they are like living works of art. They are taught to play instruments, dance, pour tea properly, etc. An amusing thing was the idea of sensuality in the world of geisha’s, for you’re only a geisha if you can stop a man dead in his tracks with only a look. As Sayuri was learning how to be one, her “big sister geisha” was saying something about a “glimpse of the wrist” could essentially get a man hot. WOW, lewdness of the wrist, hot stuff.
The movie does, however, bring up an interesting debate, or debacle even. The notion of orientalism, as described by Edward Said, for one thing. Although I myself am unfamiliar with the “Orient” (as the opposite of the “Occident,” the western world) seeing as I was born and raised in the West, and for all I know life was/is exactly like what’s portrayed in the movie, but it appears to present the Orient as rather backward even if the context was more or less historical. The idea of the dominated and the dominator, the relations of power, can perhaps on some level be discerned, such as the scenes near the end when the American soldiers come into the movie. Then there’s Pumpkin’s whole change in appearance and demeanor once the soldiers come into the picture. Furthermore, the film, which appears to be composed almost entirely of Westerners other than the cast, may reinforce Western imposed stereotypes about Orientalism. For example, all the hoopla and controversy over casting Chinese actors/actresses in the role of distinctively Japanese characters, given all the history between these two nations. Some were saying it’s because they just assumed “Asians all look alike anyway” and by that account, are interchangeable, or that they purposely ignored or were nonchalant about cultural differences within the Asian race. But the movie execs were defending their decisions, saying it was because there was a lack of high profile actors/actresses in Japan other than Ken Watanabe (The Chairman). I personally can see the validity of both sides, especially since with the latter, it’s not out of the ordinary to have European actors portraying characters of a different European ethnicity or background, it’s not like this was a shocking new phenomenon. In any case, who knows what kind of effect a movie like this could have in regard to our Western, preconceived notions of the Orient? I’m probably reading too much into it given my familiarity with Edward Said’s texts. Just something to ponder, s’pose.
After all the hype this movie had, I must say I walked away a bit disappointed. Perhaps if I had seen the movie without hearing of the hype beforehand, I would have a different response to the movie. It’s not completely bad or a waste of money, the cinematography alone is worth admission in my opinion. If you have a couple hours to spare (yes, it is a long movie), go see it.