Friday, June 27, 2008

Between Agony and Beauty: The Elegantly Wrought Tension of Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (Review)

(Even though this movie's been out for a few years, I didn't see it for the first time until earlier this week on a night when Hadley-almost five months-refused to go to sleep. So I put in the DVD I'd borrowed from my in-laws to help us-meaning me-wind down. She was asleep within twenty minutes, but I made it until the end of the show. Because my response to the story and the cinematography was so keen, I had to work it out in print. Here's what I ended up with.)


Between Agony and Beauty: The Elegantly Wrought Tension of Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha.

The very word Geisha means artist, and to be a Geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.

Agony and beauty, for us, live side by side.

-Mameha to Chiyo in Memoirs of a Geisha (screenplay by Robin Swicord)

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005, rated PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content), Rob Marshall’s elegant movie about Japanese women trapped in sexual slavery, essentially traps viewers between the agony and beauty of the film’s main character, Chiyo, later named Sayuri (played by Ziyi Zhang), as she negotiates the turbulent waters of her deeply erotic, gracefully depicted destiny. Sold into this fate in the film’s rainy opening sequence when her father can no longer (presumably) afford to take care of her and her sister, she begins her journey into geisha-hood while her sister is placed straight into prostitution.

What’s the difference, you ask? As Mameha (played by Michelle Yeoh), Sayuri’s mentor tells her young apprentice, “Remember […], geisha are not courtesans, and we’re not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies.” Distinguished from prostitutes by shades of cultural refinement and inclinations toward hospitality, these geisha dance, pour sake, and play music to entertain their clients, while prostitutes just, well, you know. And yet, as Ebert comments, “I know, a geisha is not technically a prostitute. [But h]ere is a useful rule: Anyone who is ‘not technically a prostitute’ is a prostitute.” When it comes down to it, then, not much, if anything, separates the common prostitute from the geisha, save the subtlety of the approach and the frequency of and payment for the act.

Torn thus from her familial moorings and thrown into the sexual trade, Chiyo/Sayuri spends the rest of the movie subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) battling with self and others, searching for something or someone against which to brace the flux of her confusion, her restless nature, and her hormones and from which she might harvest a full yield of human emotion, despite, or perhaps in spite of, the expectation that a geisha must separate from her own desires because she is not meant to live for herself. Negotiating waters seems to be an apt expression for this emotional movement, especially in light of what the film’s narrator, presumably an older Sayuri, says in an opening voice-over, pointing to one motif carried throughout and at the core of the film: “Mother always […]. told me I was like water. Water can carve its way, even through stone. And when trapped, water makes a new path.” This current defines the dynamism of her life, manifesting itself cinematically in the heavy rain that punctuates much of young Chiyo’s screen time, in the ocean surrounding the island, and the numerous fountains, rivers, and ponds around and through which the drama unfolds.

As she learns, or rather is compelled by her oppressed social status, to repress her feelings (especially for the Chairman [Ken Watanabe], a man she meets and falls for as a young girl on a bridge—could it be anywhere else?—over the Sunagawa), gives her virtue to the highest bidder, and battles with the passion of body and soul, the current moves inward, flowing through her striking eyes like deep water into the viewer’s gaze. Here we see the uneasy dynamic of agony and beauty of person, position, and cinema blend into an eroticism that runs deeper than the physical relationship between a man and a woman, that ties a person’s body to their essential identity, and that connects Self to Other, bridging culture, gender, and social status in deeply human ways.

Roger Ebert perhaps best captures this underlying tension—and my own feeling about the flick—when he writes, “There is a sense in which I enjoyed every frame of this movie, and another sense in which my enjoyment made me uneasy.” I interpret his first sense as enjoyment of the film’s aesthetic, as an appreciation of Marshall’s cinematographic decisions. As Ebert says earlier in his review, “This is one of the best-looking movies in some time […]. On the level of voluptuous visual beauty, it works if you simply regard it. The women are beauties, their world swims in silks and tapestries, smoke and mirrors, and the mysteries of hair when it is up vs. hair when it is down.” Taken together, these small strokes—players, costumes, make-up, scenery, setting, framing, all of which work toward the film’s mise en scène—create a moving picture of striking visual depth and breadth. In other words, each frame moves together in a sensual display that parallels the film’s movement through sensual subject matter.

And this leads to the last half of Ebert’s two-part comment in which he wonders if he should have taken such pleasure in this sensuality, should have allowed himself to be turned voyeur at the film’s window as Marshall undresses his embodiment of the geisha, her struggles, and her world. Thus made peeping-tom, Ebert feels troubled that es his own embodiment of he an unexpected eyefultuohe enjoyed the film’s spectacle so much. Hence while he agonizes, if you will, over the film’s seeming nostalgia over the passing of the geisha’s world, he is at the same time absorbed into this world through his appreciation of the film’s beauty.

I claim such a response for myself, though with a slight difference.

Even though I wondered throughout what sets a geisha apart from the more common and crude streetwalker, I’m convinced that this deeper eroticism of connection I mention above—as tastefully portrayed by beautiful and honest women, in Sayuri’s unfulfilled desire for belonging and contentment, and in Marshall’s elegant cinematography (sweeping fabrics pull us through the bright reds and oranges set off against more subtle and emotionally muting grays and blues)—is one reason I enjoyed the raw tensions of the movie so much. I was compelled by the broader human implications of its fiction and am convinced that, more than being a risqué tale about a lady of the night, it takes us—much like Les Miserables doesbeyond the realm of sex into the universal human quest for belonging and total connection. As Sayuri struggles against the confines of her historically oppressed social position, she shows us that “a moving work of art” (both the woman and the film), despite its flaws, can stir a person to seek that connection with self and others across the borders of time, space, and culture and to ride the sometimes divergent currents of the universe as they flow through the eye of humanity.

For what it’s worth: If you’re looking for a beautifully filmed movie and are willing to endure a certain amount of moral tension tugging at your soul as you watch, in Ebert’s words, “beauty, sex, tradition, and exoticism all choreographed into a dance of strategy and desire,” pop in Memoirs of a Geisha.