Political Film Society - Newsletter #247 -February 15, 2006

February 15, 2006


Ballots continue to arrive at Political Film Society headquarters to select the best films of 2005 that raise political consciousness. Nominees are in four categories--Democracy (Downfall; Machuca), Exposé (Crash; Good Night and Good Luck; Lord of War; North Country; Turtles Can Fly), Human Rights (The Constant Gardener; Innocent Voices; The Ninth Day; North Country; The War Within), and Peace (Downfall; In My Country; Jarhead; Munich; Private). Ballots, which are found here, are due by February 28.

Memoirs of a GeishaMemoirs of a Geisha, directed by Rob Marshall, is the Cinderella story of an ordinary nine year old, Chiyo (played by Suzuka Ongo), who by chance runs into The Chairman (played by Ken Watanabe) in a marketplace and then spends the rest of her life with a longing to return his kindness by being sponsored by him one day. Voiceovers by the geisha Mameha (played by Michelle Yeoh) tell much about her romantic quest, a story that is based on the novel by Arthur Golden. The location is Japan, and the time period covered is from the 1920s to the 1940s. After the marketplace encounter, where The Chairman buys her a snowcone and gives her a smile and a compliment, her father tries to sell her and her sister to the owner of an okiya (geisha house). Because Chiyo has blue eyes, she is quickly purchased for a tidy sum, but her sister lacks sparkle and is sold elsewhere, so they never see each other again. A voiceover explains that geisha means "artist" in Japanese, and that the story reveals the contents of the hitherto secret training undergone by young women to master the arts of body movements, conversation, cosmetics, dance, flower and household arrangements, and music in order to epitomize the Japanese feminine conception of beauty. (Gorgeous cinematography of rural and urban Japan further emphasize the centrality of the quest for beauty in Japanese culture.) The aim is to stimulate men, who are frustrated in arranged marriages, to enjoy themselves with intelligent female companions without the pornographic obligation to have sex with them. Within Chiyo's okiya, there are inevitable rivalries, as the owner (played by Kaori Momoi) can will the okiya to a favored geisha, and her choice is not predetermined. Hatsumomo (played by Gong Li), therefore, fears that Chiyo's arrival might undermine her position of potential heir and attempts to frustrate her and turn Pumpkin (played by Zoe Weizenbaum), another preteen geisha recruit, against her so that she will fail in her training--that is, a Japanese version of Mean Girls (2004).

In time Mameha, the proprietor of another geisha house, spots teenage Chiyo (played by Ziyi Zhang) as someone who might become the most desired geisha in Japan, that is, if she could handle her training and guide her social life to become the property of a rich man. Accordingly, Mameha makes an offer to train Chiyo, for a profit of course, and she is renamed Sayuri when her training has been completed. Luckily, one of the available rich men is The Chairman. However, he is a junior business partner of Nobu (played by Koji Yakusho), whom Mameha wants to bid against another rich man, Doctor Crab (played by Randall Duk Kim). To meet the doctor, Mameha makes a small cut in Sayuri's leg. To meet Nobu, she takes Sayuri to a sumo wrestling match. Later, Mameha takes Sayuri to other public events, where she meets The Baron (played by Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa), who tricks her into entering his house alone, hoping to rape her. Meanwhile, Hatsumomo is furious that Sayuri is attracting so much attention; believing that the okiya will be willed to Sayuri, she starts a fire one night that soon consumes the house. However, Allied airplanes soon begin to bomb Japan, so The Chairman arranges for Sayuri and other geisha to leave for the countryside, where they engage in ricegrowing and other forms of manual labor. When the war ends, Nobu invites Sayuri to return to town so that her charms can so impress an American military officer so that he will invest funds and then he and The Chairman can return to their former role as business executives. Now the plot thickens, as the American is clearly looking for sex before making the investment, Nobu wants Sayuri as his bride or perhaps courtesan, Sayuri is humiliated by Pumpkin (now played by Youki Kudoh), who has become a loose strumpet for the benefit of American GIs, and her goal of being sponsored or even marrying The Chairman seems to have failed. But of course the politics surrounding the geisha cannot end there, and the film tries to end on a happy note. What Memoirs of a Geisha presents, however, is an Orientalist view--the Japan that Westerners want to see. A notable lapse in the story is that the geisha provide much more intelligent conversation than the trite phases uttered by Sayuri, who otherwise would have learned to recite haiku poetry and much more. A more serious problem, which has provoked protests in Asia, is that Chinese actresses are selected for key parts. Japanese wonder why, whereas China has banned the film for painfully recalling the "comfort women" of World War II. MH

Amazon.com Music

Memoirs of a Geisha
Arthur Golden

According to Arthur Golden's absorbing first novel, the word "geisha" does not mean "prostitute," as Westerners ignorantly assume--it means "artisan" or "artist."