Underneath the Mask of a Heroine </nyt_headline>
Swathed in silk and longing (mostly for a bald guy called Oscar), the big-screen version of "Memoirs of a Geisha" arrives with good intentions firmly in place. Based on the best seller by Arthur Golden, this lavishly appointed melodrama was directed by Rob Marshall, lately of "Chicago," and features the Chinese superstars Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li, and the Malaysian transplant Michelle Yeoh, as Japanese geishas swept up in jealous rivalries during the 1930's and 40's. In this cloistered world, men come and go as do history and warplanes, amid spectacularly unfortunate metaphors about male eels and female caves and one regrettably brief catfight in a kimono.
That catfight happens late in the story, long after Ms. Zhang's character, a geisha named Sayuri, has realized that the greatest obstacle to her happiness is an older star geisha, Hatsumomo (Ms. Gong). Sold to a geisha household, or okiya, as a child, Sayuri has long lived under the same roof as Hatsumomo, first as a prepubescent slave and then as a fully ripe rival. With her eye for beauty, Hatsumomo plots her challenger's demise with a ferocity that brings to mind both Joan Crawford and the Crawford impressionist Faye Dunaway in all their nostril-flaring, no-wire-hangers intensity. Clare Boothe Luce, who wrote "The Women," a poison-pen letter to her sex that became one of Crawford's more famous and least agreeable vehicles, would have approved.
Originally published in 1997, Mr. Golden's celebrated venture into higher-end chick lit centers on Sayuri, who survives a childhood of suffering to become a famous entertainer. Narrated in the first person, the book is embroidered with vaguely ethnographic exotica, Japanese words and phrases and a great deal of hothouse intrigue about who did what to whom and where. To the non-Japanese eye, the life of the geisha may appear intoxicatingly exotic, perfumed with face powder and the mildest suggestion of sex, but at least in the film, which is credited to the screenwriter Robin Swicord, the whole thing plays out like "As the Okiya Turns," complete with devious rivals, swoonworthy swains, fabulous accouterments, a jaw-dropping dance number recycled from Madonna's Drowned World tour and much clinching, panting and scheming.
Then again, there isn't all that much for a geisha to do other than serve and conspire. Rigorously trained from childhood, geishas dedicate themselves wholly to the paid amusement of male customers. Once upon a time in Japan, some women were in the service of procreation, others were employed for recreational sex, while the geisha operated in that gray area in between. (Curiously, the first geishas were men.) Geishas aren't typical sex workers; they're superclassy sex workers who sell their virginity to the highest bidder (the pretext in both the book and film for that unhappy bit about eels and caves) and rely on steady male patronage. But while serving a new customer every six months certainly sounds less untoward than, say, turning six tricks a night in a day-rate motel, who's kidding whom?
The book and the film attempt to attenuate the more distasteful aspects of geisha life, mostly by avoiding the contradiction between its degradations and its glamorous trappings. The story, after all, opens in the 1920's with Sayuri, then age 9 and called Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), and her older sister being sold by their impoverished fisherman father and spirited away into the dark, rainy night. The girls are soon separated, with the older sister sold to a low-end brothel and the future geisha sold to her okiya, a beehive of female activity run by a pair of crones cum pimps and supported by the labor of its clipped-wing queen, Hatsumomo. Legally bound to the crones, to whom she must hand over most of her wages, Hatsumomo hopes to secure her future by one day running the okiya.
The exquisite Ms. Gong looks like a gift that keeps on giving when trussed up in silk, but she and the film come most alive when her hair tumbles down and she sashays about the okiya, stirring the air with her tremulous rage. Having seen a very different future for herself in the gray eyes of the new girl, Hatsumomo directs all that fury toward her eradication. In time, this enmity will assume soap-operatic proportions and involve the rival geisha Mameha (Ms. Yeoh), who takes Sayuri on as a trainee, and the two businessmen whose attentions consume so much of the women's and the story's time: the Chairman (Ken Watanabe, the majestic hunk from "The Last Samurai") and his partner and friend, Nobu (the great Japanese actor Koji Yakusho).
Mr. Marshall can't rescue the film from its embarrassing screenplay or its awkward Chinese-Japanese-Hollywood culture klatch, but "Memoirs of a Geisha" is one of those bad Hollywood films that by virtue of their production values nonetheless afford a few dividends, in this case, fabulous clothes and three eminently watchable female leads. Although it's always a pleasure to see these three in action, and there's something undeniably exciting about the prospect of them storming the big studio gate, the casting of Ms. Gong and Ms. Zhang ends up more bittersweet than triumphant. Ms. Zhang, for one, shows none of the heartache and steel of her astonishing performance in Wong Kar-wai's "2046." When her character crumbles with desire in that film, Ms. Zhang's face seems to break into pieces - you can scarcely believe she could put it whole again. Here, you can hardly believe it's the same actress.
Ms. Gong's hauteur and soaring cheekbones work better for her character, a woman of acid resolve. Although there are moments when Hatsumomo comes perilously close to Dragon Lady caricature ("I will destroy you!"), the actress's talent and dignity keep the performance from sliding into full-blown camp. But even the formidable Ms. Gong cannot surmount the ruinous decision to have her and Ms. Zhang, along with the poorly used Mr. Yakusho, deliver their lines in vaguely British-sounding English that imparts an unnatural halting quality to much of their dialogue. The. Result. Is. That. Each. Word. Of. Dialogue. Sounds. As. If. It. Were. Punctuated. By. A. Full. Stop. Which. Robs. The. Language. Of. Its. Watery. Flow. And. Breath. Of. Real. Life. Even. As. It. Also. Gives. New. Meaning. To. The. Definition. Of. The. Period. Movie.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The film is as discreet as an unopened waterlily.
Memoirs of a Geisha
Opens today nationwide.
Directed by Rob Marshall; written by Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Arthur Golden; director of photography, Dione Beebe; edited by Pietro Scalia; music by John Williams, with cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma and violin solos by Itzhak Perlman; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Lucy Fisher, Douglas Wick and Steven Spielberg; released by Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment. Running time: 144 minutes.
WITH: Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri), Ken Watanabe (Chairman), Michelle Yeoh (Mameha), Koji Yakusho (Nobu), Youki Kudoh (Pumpkin), Kaori Momoi (Mother), Tsai Chin (Auntie), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (The Baron), Suzuka Ohgo (Chiyo) and Gong Li (Hatsumomo).