In Memoirs of a Geisha, a flatly picturesque prestige adaptation of the roundly handsome 1997 middlebrow literary bestseller by Arthur Golden, ubiquitous Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang, who plays the narrating Japanese geisha Sayuri, whispers in a delicate, meaningless voice-over that her world is ”as forbidden as it is fragile.” Forbidden to whom? As fragile as what? The movie, directed by Rob Marshall with the same mass marketer’s eye for shiny surfaces that he brought to Chicago, and written by Little Women’s Robin Swicord, arrives with refined manners and good breeding in a rustle of silk kimonos just in time for consideration during the middlebrow prestige-awards season. It’s bound to win some. It’s also a cinch to boost the sale of tie-in fashions and cosmetics. But not since Snow Falling on Cedars have I seen so pedigreed a lit-pic sit there like such an inert teapot, available only to be admired for its mysterious, ineffable Asian teapotness.
The story traces Sayuri’s rise from a poor, strikingly blue-eyed peasant girl called Chiyo, sold by her family into geishadom (with much throat-clearing explanation of the differences between the artistry of geishas and the tartistry of common prostitutes) to become the reigning artiste of her day. And in the beginning, the picture rushes forward (with none of the book’s dawdling educational chitchat) on promising streams of tears pouring from young Chiyo (played with arresting feistiness by newcomer Suzuka Ohgo) and rivers of rainwater, gushing from the recurring motif of Sayuri’s elementally watery, adaptable nature.
But just after the first, unsettling moment of sexual tension — when the weeping, rebellious little girl meets the much older gentleman known only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who would become the secret object of her strangled, grown-up affections — Memoirs loses its taste for risk, and settles, throughout the movie’s subsequent melodramatic turns, for the familiar blandishments of good looks and technical control. Once Zhang appears in all her gorgeous porcelain opacity, the sad woman renamed Sayuri defies any further emotional penetration and the movie follows suit, an imitation of life. And there it remains, stoppered up, even while the old Japanese empire falls and traditions of chasteness give way to a coarser time. (In the unsubtle role of Pumpkin, Cedars star Youki Kudoh represents the bad new population of westernized modern Asian women.)
As Sayuri trains her powers, she is instructed by a mentor (Michelle Yeoh) and schemed against by a rival; in one girl-girl battle, she’s clawed at by her nemesis, Hatsumomo, played in a shrieky fit of Geisha Dearest by the great diva Gong Li; apparently it takes a village of Chinese movie stars to play Japanese women. Hairpins fly and obis go awry in this sleek production. And yet, inscrutably, no one and nothing gets touched.