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If you are making a major Hollywood movie where all the major characters are Japanese, what do you do? Unlike Indie films, where generally the casting is done more rationally, i.e., you get the best actor you can, Hollywood blockbusters need to be headlined by well-known bankable actors or at least that's the theory. The recent movie, The Last Samurai, faced this problem, but luckily the main character in that film was caucasian so they were able to cast Tom Cruise. The rest of the cast were Japanese actors, including Ken Watanabe. The film version of Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the best-selling book by Arthur Golden, had a more serious casting problem. All of the major characters are Japanese. Since there aren't many (any?) well-known Japanese actresses, the director of Memoirs of a Geisha, Rob Marshall, decided to cast three of the best-known actresses in China to play Japanese geishas: Michelle Yeoh (The Queen of Martial Arts), Gong Li, and Ziyi Zhang (a.k.a. Little Gong Li). These actresses may not be able to "open" a film but at least their faces are familiar to North American audiences. However, this casting choice created a buzz, not necessarily a positive buzz, about the movie before it opened. Since Memoirs of a Geisha has many Chinese and Japanese actors and actresses in the cast, you can amuse yourself by trying to see if you can tell who is from which country on looks alone. Marshall, at least, seems to think that they all look alike. Anyway, several of the actors with very Asian names are as American as apple pie.
Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a geisha (Ziyi Zhang) from the time she is a little girl (Faith Shin) until her coming of age which coincides with World War II. As a young girl, her mother dies, and her father sells her into servitude. She ends up in a geisha house and receives training in music, dance, conversation and, of course, how to put on all those kimonos. While still a young girl, she meets a much older man (Ken Watanabe) who will become the love of her life. Zhang and her fellow student (Youki Kudoh) live with their house mother (Kaori Momoi), and Zhang is trained by an older geisha (Michelle Yeoh). Another geisha (Gong Li) doesn't like the competition and becomes Zhang's enemy. Once she becomes a geisha, Zhang often sees her love, Watanabe, but she is geisha to his best friend (Koji Yakusho) and to other older men (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa & Randall Duk Kim) who sometimes want more from her than just conversation. Their whole world comes apart at the end of the war, and Zhang ends up living poor in a small village. But, she is called out of retirement to service an American soldier (Ted Levine) who might help Yakusho.
I never read the book so I came to this movie without any biases. Memoirs of a Geisha has not been getting great reviews so maybe my expectations were set right. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised. I went to see it primarily because of Yeoh and Zhang who were so good together in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They are both good here as is Gong Li. It is weird to see them all speaking without subtitles, although Yeoh has long been fluent in English. There are a few familiar faces in the cast. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is American and has appeared in many movies, most recently in the short lived series, Hawaii. Randall Duk Kim, also an American, appeared as the Keymaker in The Matrix Reloaded. Ted Levine, who plays the American soldier is also familiar. He was the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs among many other roles. The cast is all good. The little girl, Faith Shin,, who plays Zhang as a youngster is really great and looks a lot like Zhang. Gong Li gets to have the most fun as the bad geisha. Zhang and Yeoh are great as usual but mostly have to look demure. Li gets to play a younger geisha, even though at 40, she is only 3 years younger than Yeoh.
Memoirs of a Geisha was directed by Rob Marshall who just came off directing Chicago which won Best Picture at the Oscars. Chicago, of course, was a broadway musical, but Memoirs of a Geisha is also quite stagy with all the geisha costumes and rituals. There aren't any plots surprises except maybe that Memoirs of a Geisha has a fairly happy ending. But Marshall keeps the plot moving along and everyone looks good in their fancy outfits. This film didn't really tug at my heartstrings as Zhang goes through all her trials and tribulations, but it is entertaining enough. I got much more out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang's more recent turn in the scifi romance, 2046.