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Memoirs of a Geisha
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that while this film is beautiful, it's slow-moving and occasionally scary, not designed for young children. The film includes some images of streets under siege (China and Japan are at war), as well as tensions inside the geisha house (one character sets fire to the house, leading to some frightening images). The film begins with the traumatic scene of a young girl sold to a geisha house by her poor parents, and shows her upset when she's forcibly separated from her sister, who works at another house.
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What's the story?
In MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, Sayuri (played as an adult by Ziyi Zhang) is sold by her poor family to a geisha house, or okiya, when she's just nine; her blue eyes make her look "special" and Hatsumomo (Gong Li) is immediately jealous, threatening the child. The film westernizes Sayuri, in part by having her yearn endlessly for the wealthy Chairman (Ken Watanabe), whom she meets as a child. But it also preserves her "exotic" otherness. The geisha insist they are not prostitutes, selling sex only as illusion. They do, however, sell their virginity, and pride themselves on being well paid for it. The fact of Sayuri's stunning blue eyes only underlines this refusal to engage with the hardships geishas endure as a matter of course. She is "special," she is treasured, she is property. Sayuri's displays of artifice are lovely and a little daunting. Images of this lifelong process of objectification are framed by others that approximate "history," including the Sino-Japanese war, which leaves the okiya devastated, and Sayuri laboring in a field. She does find her way back into geisha-ness, depicted as a kind of triumph. The fantasy remains the most precious object, whether embodied by gorgeous women or imagined by them.
Is it any good?
Memoirs is not so intriguing as it promises, leaving little to the imagination with its series of heavyhanded set pieces. Based on Arthur Golden's novel and directed by the dramatically unsubtle Rob Marshall, the film is disappointingly straightforward, predictable, and unwieldy.
This despite and because of the presence of the glorious women actors at its center, including Zhang as the youngest geisha, Michelle Yeoh as her mentor Mameha, and wondrous Gong Li as her rival Hatsumomo. The women are stunning (and some questions have been raised as to the casting of Chinese superstars as Japanese characters). Memoirs never questions the overdetermination of beauty. So unexamined, so delicate, so mysterious: the geisha is not so much remembered here as she is conjured and undermined, repeatedly.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the film's portrayal of geisha life: it is mysterious but also difficult. How does the film both "westernize" its characters and "exoticize" them, so they are both conventionally sympathetic and stereotypically "inscrutable"? How is Sayuri's love for the Chairman a function of romantic conventions more than a substantive relationship between the two characters? How is the idea of the geisha associated with "submissive" and servile women?
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