Sony // 2005 // 145 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // September 27th, 2007
"The very word "geisha" means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art."
Memoirs of a Geisha was a novel for which the movie rights were hotly contested for, with Steven Spielberg being attached to a film adaptation at one point, until Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) settled into the reins, with Spielberg producing. The film received ample critical recognition, but the question is does it bring the goods in high definition?
Robin Swicord (Practical Magic) adapted Arthur Golden's novel, which tells the story of Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi, 2046), a girl pulled from a modest fishing village by her father, who sells her and her sister, forcing them to work in a geisha house. The girls are separated during the journey, and Sayuri is an assistant or slave to Hatsumomo (Li Gong, Curse of the Golden Flower), an ill-tempered and manipulative geisha who tries to crush Sayuri's dreams. With the help of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Sayuri is transformed into an elite Japanese geisha, one who despite being linked to Nobu (Koji Yakusho, Babel), has longer term feelings for a man known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai). The film chronicles these events and Sayuri's feelings about them -- her memoirs, if you will.
I'd been a bit skeptical and even dismissive about this material and about the decision to cast Marshall as the director. My thoughts? One trick pony, book might be good, film, who knows? Quite frankly, it wasn't my interest. But the story keeps you interested, the acting is much better than expected, and I think that this film gives Marshall a chance to show that he can do things other than directing cinematic adaptations of musicals. He lets the story do the work without involving choreography that could be considered a bit unnecessary. Most of the dancing and infatuation with costumes goes towards the dissection of how the geisha is created. Zhang is responsible for the film and her performance along with Yeoh's are very polished and worthy of praise, and considering that Zhang has yet to see her 30th birthday, I expect continued great performances in the future.
Technically, the AVC MPEG-4 encoded 2.40:1 transfer for the most part looks pretty fracking good. The level of detail in some of the exterior shots, not to mention the close ups, really is something to behold. It doesn't seem to hold the sharpness of the image consistently over the course of the feature, but as you'll see below, it could be forgiven. The PCM soundtrack is a bit more impressive, with enveloping and environmental sound when it's needed, dialogue retaining crispness and surround activity being smooth without being excessive.
The extras are presumably the same as the standard def version, but it's a pretty loaded disc. First and foremost is a Blu-ray exclusive extra, and that's a disc index that brings up an alpha character group. Pull up a letter, then a keyword, and it will play everything on the disc related to the keyword, be it a scene from the film or the supplements. Something tells me that this is something that will get played around with by Sony and discarded, but if used a little more efficiently could be a nice thing to employ.
Moving onto the rest of it, there are two commentary tracks on the production, the first being with Marshall and co-producer John DeLuca, who also served as the film's choreographer. The track is fairly lively throughout, as Marshall discusses his creative style on this and other films, along with any noticeable differences between the book and its film interpretation. He also discusses some of the challenges on the production, like speaking through a slew of interpreters to his cast, and shares some additional stories on the production and cast. Occasionally, there's even some shot breakdown information or some historical context added. Marshall and DeLuca feed off of each other very easily and it makes for an enjoyable track. The second track features costume designer Colleen Atwood, production designer John Myhre and editor Pietro Scalia. The material on this track is somewhat drier, but that's not to say that it's any less informative. They discuss their roles in the film, along with what Marshall tasked them with, and how they went about doing it. They also share their thoughts on the book and of working with Marshall, and bring up a lot of their own information on the production challenges as well. Both of these tracks are worthy supplements to the film.
From there we go to the many featurettes on the film, starting with "Sayuri's Journey: From Novel to Screen." This 14-minute piece covers Golden and his journey to get the book published, and later how the book was translated to film. "The Road to Japan" is a five-minute look at the locations and inspirations for the film, as well as the reason for shooting some sequences in Japan. "Geisha Bootcamp" is a funny phrase used to describe a 10-minute look at how the actors transformed themselves into the Japanese icons, and the crew discusses more of the process as to how they got to where they were. "Building the Hanamachi" shows you how the sets for the film were designed and created in a 12-minute piece. "The Look of a Geisha" runs for about 15 minutes and shows more of how the cast prepared and rehearsed for the feature, and how they were made up and dressed. "Music of 'Memoirs'" is 10 minutes of Williams, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman as they talk about what they wanted to do for the film, and more specifically Williams' approach to scoring it. "A Geisha's Dance" covers the history of the event by the geisha, and what was done to translate it for film. "The World of the Geisha" is a larger look at the historical look of the geisha within Japan and the "Geisha Consultant" used in the film. "The Way of the Sumo" is a five minute Sumo 101 for the novice, and "Director Rob Marshall's Story" is just that. A famous Japanese Chef named Nobu Matsuhita discusses appearing in the film, and shows us three easy recipes for Japanese food, whose recipes are included on the disc in a separate section. Two stills galleries round things out, and for fans of the film, if they're expecting more, they should be crazy, as the total runtime on these things is an approximate hour and a half.
I think that the film tends to be so enamored with the Japanese people and culture that it seems to meander away from telling a compelling story. Too often there are shots of how the girl is transformed into the geisha, and sure, the title of the film does explain that a bit, but I think the shots are a bit prolonged and might even be used to distract from the story which, while told fairly well, isn't entirely new.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a good movie with great performances and marvelous production values. The story might not be the greatest thing in the world, but Marshall takes you into the film, mesmerizes you, and leaves you with a pleasant experience at the end of it all. It's definitely worth renting if you haven't seen it.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Thai)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Eleven Behind the Scenes Featurettes
* Audio Commentary with Director Rob Marshal and Co-Producer John DeLuca
* Production Audio Commentary (Costume Designer, Production Designer, Editor)
* Official Site
* Soundtrack Site
* Original DVD Verdict Review