1997's Memoirs of a Geisha is easily one of my favorite books of all time. It's not as high on the list as To Kill A Mockingbird but it does precede anything by Raymond Chandler and even James Cain's Mildred Pierce (as a point of comparison, it's sitting open at this very moment alongside Stephen King's It, another tale of traumatized, unloved children triumphing over the enemy).
I love the original novel Memoirs so much I've resisted seeing the 2005 film adaptation until recently (because all films based on books lose A LOT in translation to cinema). Also the movie got fairly tepid notices:
"Less nuanced than its source material, Memoirs of a Geisha may be a lavish production, but it still carries the simplistic air of a soap opera" ran a typical review.
But I bought the DVD for a friend whose spoken English is pretty hit or miss, and who doesn't read English at all, and I kinda snuck a peek at it. Nice surprise.
Whoever did the screenplay deserved an Oscar, because-just judging from the finished product-he or she managed to include most of the themes of the book. Characters and dialogue have been deftly eliminated and/or reassigned (neccesarily because if Memoirs had been filmed as written it would have run about 8 hours).
And this is easily one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. But that's the problem. Steven Spielberg (responsible for some of the greatest movies ever made) was involved in this production, so of course it's...um...pretty. Even the scenes of the young Sayuri and her only friend and ally "Pumpkin" being beaten in the rain are photographed beautifully.
Cinematography aside, there are a few minor problems with the adaptation. Nobu (the second male lead) is transformed from a harsh, angry (and understandably so; he's scarred and missing an arm, blown off by a grenade years before) but doggedly loyal and loving character into...just an angry guy with a scar. And the thing is-he loves Sayuri. In fact, he saves her life at one point. But in the movie, he just scowls a lot and then disappears late in the plot.
Even worse, the character of Pumpkin (Sayuri's one pal) is radically diminished (perhaps, like Nobu, because of time constraints?). In the novel by Arthur Golden, Pumpkin is a girl sold to the Okiya (Geisha House) by her uncle because as he says: "Some girls are smart and some girls are stupid. You're a nice girl, but you're one of the stupid ones."
Pumpkin repeatedly, sweetly helps Sayuri at her own risk and gets nothing but grief in return. In the book, her transformation into a vicious, low-class prostitute is horrifying. In the movie, however, it falls kind of flat.
The worst mistake, however, is the depiction of Hatsumomo. The film humanizes her to the point where it isn't even really apparent who the villain is. In the book she's a spectacularly beautiful disaster, wreaking havoc on everyone around her, but she reserves special torture for little Sayuri, who is destined to take her place.
Still...it's such a pretty film!
Zhang Ziyi plays Sayuri, our heroine. I've never heard of her before but she does a wonderful job here.
Michelle Yeoh plays Mame-ha (pronounced Mom-Eh-Hah--go figure, all these years I've been pronouncing it "Maim-Ha"), and although she doesn't precisely fit the character physically, this gifted actress portrays all the kindness and dignity of her character.
And the brilliant Gong Li plays Hatsumomo. I've loved her for about 20 years (since renting cassettes of Ju Dou and the shattering Raise The Red Lantern from Blockbuster) but this isn't her best performance, not through any fault of her own.
Had she been allowed to play Hatsumomo as "the demon" she was (according to poor, abused Sayuri in the book) she might have made an even stronger impression. Realistically and logically her performance makes total sense (she's as much a victim as Sayuri is) but dramatically and cinematically, making her character sympathetic weakens the picture.
But that's my opinion.
So would I recommend Memoirs of a Geisha to you?
Hell yeah! For the most part, everyone involved does a pretty good job.
P.S. I've been off-line for about a month now (work, technical issues, more work, etc) and I'm thrilled (yes, thrilled) to be able to check my emails again! Hope y'all are doing well. XXXOOO Rob