After the novel was such a runaway success, it comes as no surprise to find this story on the big screen. The choice of Rob Marshall as director however, raises a question or two: it’s a long way from toe-tapping Chicago to the subtle world of Japanese geisha. But then again, maybe not for Hollywood.
Remaining true to the book, the film begins in the years before World War II when Chiyo, a poor young Japanese girl, is sold into a Geisha house. There she falls prey to the machinations of an irritable landlady and a petulant head-geisha, strongly played by Gong Li. The young Chiyo seems destined to a life of servitude until one day her watery eyes catch the attention of a wealthy businessman called the Chairman. With a moment of kindness and a glimpse of a possible future, he provides her with a new determination just as she is coming of age. Armed with her blossoming beauty and with the help of a more experienced Geisha from a rival establishment, played with consummate grace by Michelle Yeoh, Chiyo embarks on the unforgiving journey to become a Geisha herself. And always in her thoughts are that this will somehow bring her closer to the Chairman – the object of her deeper affection.
It’s a sumptuous Cinderella story with silk and sliding doors. It is beautifully shot, and has a carefully constructed musical score that blends the romantic west with the mystical east. Yet the film never manages to get beyond a pastiche of the Orient. Rather than subtly pulling apart the layers of this complex female world to reveal the longing and desire buried beneath the kimono, Marshall errs on the side of cliché and leaves you in no doubt about who’s naughty and who’s nice. The romance that lies at the heart of this great story is never fully given the focus it deserves.
Ken Watanabe and Michelle Yeoh shine in a cast who otherwise look good but often struggle with their English. About halfway through I realised that the film had become a kind of Geisha itself: gorgeously drenched in silk, stylishly beautiful to look at, but with little prospect of emotional attachment and definitely no sex. It’s lush, stylish and a feast for the eyes and ears rather than the heart and soul.