Fri, Jan 13, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Geishas make deadly enemies

Zhang Ziyi claws her way to the top of her profession

By Manohla Dargis  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Zhang Ziyi, center, takes the lead role in this rags-to-silk story.

PHOTOS: AP

Swathed in silk and longing (mostly for a bald guy called Oscar), the big-screen version of Memoirs of a Geisha arrives with good intentions firmly in place. Based on the bestseller by Arthur Golden, this lavishly appointed melodrama was directed by Rob Marshall, lately of Chicago, and features the Chinese superstars Zhang Ziyi (章子怡) and Gong Li (鞏俐), and the Malaysian transplant Michelle Yeoh (楊紫瓊), as Japanese geishas swept up in jealous rivalries during the 1930s and 1940s. In this cloistered world, men come and go as do history and warplanes, amid spectacularly unfortunate metaphors about male eels and female caves and one regrettably brief catfight in a kimono.

That catfight happens late in the story, long after Zhang's character, a geisha named Sayuri, has realized that the greatest obstacle to her happiness is an older star geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong). Sold to a geisha household, or okiya, as a child, Sayuri has long lived under the same roof as Hatsumomo, first as a prepubescent slave and then as a fully ripe rival. With her eye for beauty, Hatsumomo plots her challenger's demise with a ferocity that brings to mind both Joan Crawford and the Crawford impressionist Faye Dunaway in all their nostril-flaring, no-wire-hangers intensity. Clare Boothe Luce, who wrote The Women, a poison-pen letter to her sex that became one of Crawford's more famous and least agreeable vehicles, would have approved.

Originally published in 1997, Golden's celebrated venture into higher-end chick lit centers on Sayuri, who survives a childhood of suffering to become a famous entertainer. Narrated in the first person, the book is em`broidered with vaguely ethnographic exotica, Japanese words and phrases and a great deal of hothouse intrigue about who did what to whom and where. To the non-Japanese eye, the life of the geisha may appear intoxicatingly exotic, perfumed with face powder and the suggestion of sex, but at least in the film, which is credited to the screenwriter Robin Swicord, the whole thing plays out like "As the Okiya Turns," complete with devious rivals, swoonworthy swains,

Film Notes:

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

Directed by: Rob Marshall

Starring: Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri), Ken Watanabe (Chairman), Michelle Yeoh (Mameha), Koji Yakusho (Nobu), Youki Kudoh (Pumpkin), Kaori Momoi (Mother), Tsai Chin (Auntie), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (The Baron), Suzuka Ohgo (Chiyo) and Gong Li (Hatsumomo)

Running time: 144 minutes

Taiwan Release: today


fabulous accouterments, a jaw-dropping dance number recycled from Madonna's Drowned World tour and much clinching, panting and scheming.

Then again, there isn't all that much for a geisha to do other than serve and conspire. Rigorously trained from childhood, geishas dedicate themselves wholly to the paid amusement of male customers. Once upon a time in Japan, some women were in the service of procreation, others were employed for recreational sex, while the geisha operated in that gray area in between. (Curiously, the first geishas were men.) Geishas aren't typical sex workers; they're super-classy sex workers who sell their virginity to the highest bidder (the pretext in both the book and film for that unhappy bit about eels and caves) and rely on steady male patronage. But while serving a new customer every six months certainly sounds less untoward than, say, turning six tricks a night in a day-rate motel, who's kidding whom?

The book and the film attempt to attenuate the more distasteful aspects of geisha life, mostly by avoiding the contradiction between its degradations and its glamorous trappings. The story, after all, opens in the 1920s with the young Sayuri, then called Chiyo, (Suzuka Ohgo), then a nine-year-old, and her older sister being sold by their impoverished fisherman father and spirited away into the dark, rainy night. The girls are soon separated, with the older sister sold to a low-end brothel and the future geisha sold to her okiya, a beehive of female activity run by a pair of crones cum pimps and supported by the labor of its clipped-wing queen, Hatsu-momo. Legally bound to the crones, to whom she must hand over most of her wages, Hatsumomo hopes to secure her future by one day running the okiya.

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