Memoirs of a Geisha

Rated 3.0

Rob Marshall (Chicago) attempts a large-scale period piece of another sort with this relentlessly superficial drama about the world of geishas in Japan during the decade that preceded World War II.

Adapted from Arthur Golden’s bestseller, the story centers on a country lass who is sold into slavery by her poverty-stricken parents and who blossoms into a geisha of some special note. An attractive cast—Ziyi Zhang as the central character, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh as slightly older geishas who are also rivals—and the gloomy sensuousness of Marshall’s mise en scene give us plenty to look at while slow-advancing assortments of formulaic mini-dramas play themselves out.

Especially in its sumptuous set design and art direction, Memoirs of a Geisha feels like a combination of modern historical drama and old-fashioned studio-made costume drama. But, because it never really achieves any depth of feeling, the onscreen results look more like a partly failed attempt to mix some Asian-cinema knock-offs with a veiled sort of soft-core exploitation theatrics.

The title character’s career as a geisha is marked by episodes of cruel manipulation, vicious competition and heartless careerism. The story tacitly lightens that darkly melodramatic load with a kind of much-delayed Cinderella story involving Zhang’s geisha and a handsomely compassionate businessman (Ken Watanabe).

Watanabe’s performance, in what amounts to the Prince Charming role, is crucial to the film’s glossing-over of its gloomier aspects. He and Koji Yakusho both make stellar impressions in the chief male roles. Youki Kudoh is very good as Pumpkin, a fledgling geisha whose story parallels, and contrasts with, that of the central character.