An adaptation of the best-selling novel about a young girl (Ziyi Zhang) sold into servitude by her impoverished father.


Arthur Golden's debut novel, Memoirs of a Geisha was a best seller when released in 1997 and it has finally made it to the big screen. Director, Rob Marshall was hired for the job, on the strength of his previous film, Chicago and he's enlisted the acting talent of three stars of Chinese cinema – Zhang Ziyi (House Of Flying Daggers, 2046), Gong Li (Farewell My Concubine) and Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon).

Spanning two decades, Memoirs of A Geisha traces the journey of Chiyo, who at the tender age of nine, is sold by her impoverished father, to a geisha household, which are known as Okiya's. She will eventually be trained as a Geisha, but first must work as a bottom-rung servant and obey the iron fisted, Mother (Kaori Momoi). Chiyo soon comes to blows with Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a star geisha, who is threatened by the beauty of the new recruit, recognizing that the young servant could damage her future success. Her hatred for the young servant is compounded, when at the age of 15, Chiyo is taken as a protege by Hatsumomo's main rival, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). After a quick catch up – learning the art of being a geisha, including mastering an instrument, fan dancing and serving sake, Chiyo emerges as Sayuri, a legendary Geisha, who pines for the man she cannot have – The Chairman (Ken Watanabe). Sayuri's new found success is put on hold when war breaks out.

Marshall's film is sumptuous and the attention to detail, impressive. There's beautiful woman, gorgeous costumes and cherry blossoms aplenty. But spectacular production design can only hold your attention for so long. Unfortunately, Memoirs Of A Geisha is an arduous experience, especially when you're faced with two hours of unsteady acting and an unconvincing, melodramatic plot. The screenplay, by Robin Swicord (Little Women) is far too awkward, the dialogue is hackneyed and Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li both struggle with their English. As a result, Zhang's performance is particularly misplaced. It's too passive and it's almost impossible to feel any pity for her situation. But this is also due to a lack of authenticity. This is Japanese culture filtered through Western eyes that pretends to investigate the culture and the customs, but instead glamorises the tough discipline and sacrifices geishas must endure for their art and it does not delve into what life was really like for these women. It might be that this is one of those books that works only on the page, but my money's on the Hollywood treatment.

While there are some interesting insights, overall this is a fantasy that reduces what was 15 years of work for the author into a cliched epic. At its heart, this is simple love story that doesn't suit such grandiose treatment.