After I returned home from seeing Memoirs of a Geisha, something made me pick Charles Frazier's 1997 novel Cold Mountain off the shelf. The book is memorable for the way it overwhelms the reader with new information through its mining of an obsolete dictionary of retired words from the Civil War era - tools that are no longer in existence, flowers that aren't common, songs that aren't sung, and so on (I'm still not sure that I know what a tompion or an offscouring is). The point of drowning the reader in detail is to put the author's credibility as a narrator beyond question, and it works. It wasn't until I saw the film version of Cold Mountain a couple of years ago that my opinion of the work was brought down a peg or two. Aside from a crackerjack performance by Nicole Kidman, the story had little to recommend it; there was no real dramatic heft or resonance. I've never picked up Arthur Golden's Memoirs, but after seeing the film I'm convinced that the book must be in the mold of Cold Mountain.

If Memoirs of a Geisha is not about the fine points of time and place in Imperial Japan, then it must be about what it's about. And what it's about-about is the pageantry and romance that awaits a woman who sells her vagina at auction. The film goes out of its way to remind us that geishas are not prostitutes, but so do the escort ads in the Manhattan yellow pages. Pay no attention. A girl who is 'selected' to become a geisha will spend the better part of her reproductive life learning how to please a man. She brings him a tablecloth if he needs a tablecloth, laughs at his jokes whether or not they are funny, makes with cheap entertainments like fan-dances on command, and is always within ear-shot to dispense fortune-cookie aphorisms that do not betray any personal thoughts or opinions or desires. She offers more or less the same kind of companionship as the talking robot from Rocky IV. At the climax of a geisha's geishahood, a bidding war between powerful men erupts, and her virginity is put on the block. If she's lucky.


What kind of little girl would grow up to be such an empty kimono? According to this film, the improbable answer is a girl with enough sass to be an Indiana Jones sidekick. As the film opens, young Chiyo is the victim of an act of familial sabotage; her desperately poor father has sold his two daughters into slavery. They are hauled away from their cloudy fishing village home in a wagon cage, with the destination being the inner slums of Tokyo. Quickly split apart, one is sent to a common whorehouse and the other, Chiyo, is selected to begin training at the geisha dojo. She immediately rebels and sets out to find her stolen sister, but she's caught and caned so brutally she can barely rise from her knees. As she slowly starts to get used to her new surroundings, we meet the other characters in the geisha house, including a Yoda-like geishamaster who smokes a crooked pipe and examines all the fresh meat and a vengeful, past-it geisha (late 20s?) played by Gong Li, who is jealous of Chiyo's youth and cerulean eyes.

 

The film takes an amazingly creepy turn when young Chiyo is accosted on the street by "The Chairman," a smartly-suited businessman played by Ken Watanabe. The middle-aged man buys Chiyo a cup of sweet ice so that he can keep her still long enough to examine her sexual potential. A Hugh Hefner type, he enjoys walking the streets with a geisha on each arm and his tastes require him to constantly be on the lookout for newer models. He is already salivating over the pre-teen's body, so he makes vague arrangements to have her geishahood fast-tracked. At this point, the child actress who plays young Chiyo is switched out in favor of 26-year old Ziyi Zhang - a mistake. The younger actress is the more compelling of the two, so why not let her play the maturing geisha? The world depicted in this story couldn't possibly have scruples about such a thing as age appropriateness, so why force it on me, the movie-goer?

The longer the film goes on, the more obvious its arcs become and the more we begin to feel that we've settled in for an experience that the movie is not really prepared to provide. Teasing out the detail and color of this world to the satisfaction of those who enjoyed the book would probably require a leisurely director like Terrence Malick. Those who haven't read the book, like me, would settle for a story containing one or two compelling characters. What we get instead is more or less an All About Eve story, with a bevy of backstage backstabbers throwing sideways glances at each other through the slats of the Shoji screens. Everyone is plotting someone's glorious comeuppance. At the center is a young and talented performer who is hated for being the youngest and the most talented, but she only occupies that spot because the movie says she must. We don't really sense it.

Chiyo - at some point she is renamed Sayuri by her committee of pimps - has one Vegas extravaganza-style dance scene in the middle of the film, but its purpose is suspect. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) wants to throw us off the trail and make us forget that Sayuri's real talent is creating in herself a creature of sublime subservience. She is What Men Want, and the truest message of the movie is that in a smoothly-oiled society, powerful men are apt to get what they truly desire. The point is rammed home when The Chairman - the man who befriended Sayuri as a little girl - returns toward the end of the story to take on the role that he's been waiting for since that day: her love interest. All the dance scenes in the world couldn't drain the creepiness out of that.