The Red Right Hand
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MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA
A True Geisha Can Stop A Man In His Tracks With A Single Look

Director
Rob Marshall
Starring
Ziyi Zhang
Michelle Yeoh
Ken Watanabe
Li Gong
Koji Yakusho

Analysing this one is going to be a little difficult. I'm not exactly versed on the complete history of Japan and its peoples but I have read a considerable amount and feel that I know enough to get me by. The first thing that needs to be illustrated is that a Geisha is not a prostitute, the word 'Geisha' means artist and they were hired to entertain wealthy men. This is the story of one particular Geisha and how she came to be trained. We open to a rural on the shores of Japan, a lady lies restlessly to one side as two gentlemen discuss something in private (illustrated by the fact that what is being said isn't subtitled), silently watched by two young girls. Within moments the sisters are taken away in a carriage, sold off in an attempt to sustain the elderly man's family and give his daughters the chance for a better life. When the girls reach Kyoto they are separated; blue-eyed Chiyo [Suzuka Ohgo] (later dubbed Sayuri [Zhang]) is sold to an Okiya, whereas her sister, Satsu [Samantha Futerman], is taken to the 'pleasure district' to make a living as a prostitute. The head of the Okiya is 'Mother' [Kaori Momoi] - the cruel, croaky-voiced lady of the house who has the girls schooled and then sets clients up for them - with the fact that the Geisha-in-training refer to each other as 'big/little sister' and the Okiya as home, a family atmosphere is primary; another effort to prove this tale is not about prostitution.

This film is divided into three segments: Chiyo's childhood, growing up in the Okiya, living in the shadow of the Geisha; reminding the audience what a Geisha is, how the tradition has survived for hundreds of years and the affect World War II had on Japan and the necessity of retaining culture & national heritage. Something that bothered me throughout was the film's marketing campaign, which portrayed this as a timeless romance. First of all it's not timeless, as the end of the film takes a nod towards the Western influence that swept the country during the US occupation after the war - the realisation that their society would be forced to change in order to cater for the victorious Super Power. This is the part that gets difficult because I have no right to judge a culture that outdates my own heritage (having said that, this movie is based on a book by Arthur Golden and is therefore a work of fiction and I can say whatever I please!); the notion of the plot being a 'love story.' It would be wrong to say it's not because it doesn't fall into the conventionally accepted categorization and yet it has all the main qualities and elements of a love story: girl meets boy, external forces intervene, internal struggles, eventual union. I don't want to ruin the final thoughts of the movie (at least not so early in the review) but during one powerful scene Sayuri proclaims she yearns for a life of her own; to a Westerner it would appear she fails by the closing credit sequence. The fact that a Geisha may not love nor marry could give the impression that this story's ending is going to be either anti-climactic or disappointing; luckily it's neither... and yet somehow both. Considering the historical accuracies aren't exactly my forte, we shall move on to something that is.

I'm an immense fan of Asian cinema. I believe the East has offered us so much with regards to visual styles, techniques, set & studio proficiency and the creation & evolution of many new genres. It pains me greatly to see many American companies buying and re-vamping classic Eastern scripts and stories when there is blatantly no need, other than to cater for the paranoia of xenophobes. So when I learned this was to be shot with an all-Asian cast (bar a few American GI's) my heart leapt - finally a chance for the close-minded to see what can be offered - for there's no better way of introducing new elements to the unwilling than through cinematic deception and secrecy. Unfortunately, this is a long time pet-project of Steven Spielberg - which means an American director and all-English audio track; damn - to say the least. With directors like Ang Lee around, you would have thought that Spielberg (now simply producer) would have employed someone other than Wisconsin's own choreographer-turned-director, Rob Marshall. In his defence, with dancing as one of the Geisha's main talents, a choreographer should know what to look out for (The Producers' director, Stroman, proved that). This feels like an American film; which is such a pity. If I were in charge I would have called in two directors (one would have to be credited as Guest or Assistant Director, to fend off the wrath of the Guild, but it would be a joint effort), an acclaimed Asian director to film the first two thirds, then an American director for the last section, based after the war - just to illustrate the difference in lifestyle. I would also have left it in a solid native tongue, rather than Asian-accented-English, which just spoils the effect. In closing, Geisha is a fantastical and beautiful film with a universal theme at its heart, its faults are few and minuscule but enough to take from the overall epic feeling this film should have been laced with.

Release Date:
13th January 2006

The Scene To Look Out For:
In an attempt to scare off Nobu's [Yakusho] advances, Sayuri arranges for him to walk in on her with an American GI [Ted Levine]. When she confronts Pumpkin [Youki Kudoh] to ascertain why she brought the Chairman instead, she replies, "A long time ago, you took something from me, the only thing I ever truly wanted. Well...now you know how it feels." Poignant and malicious.

Notable Characters:
Li Gong as Hatsumomo; cold, ruthless and wonderfully portrayed. Gong's performance gives the audience a notion of the bitter rivalries that can spawn in a school environment.

Highlighted Quote:
"She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadow. The rest is secret"

In A Few Words:
"Glorious performances conceal the few poor decisions made by the director - a tad long, though"

Total Score:
8/10


Matthew Stogdon