Based on the widely-acclaimed and best-selling 1997 novel by Arthur Golden, 'Memoirs of a Geisha' tells the sprawling tale of a Japanese girl named Chiyo.
Sold into bondage by her widowed father, through a series of circumstances, Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) eventually falls under the tutelage of Memeha (Michelle Yeoh), one of the most successful geishas in Kyoto. Within no time, the student seems poised overthrow the master, with Chiyo (now renamed Sayuri) threatening to unseat Memeha as Kyoto's reigning geisha. Meanwhile, a rival geisha named Hatsumomo (Gong Li) becomes so jealous of Sayuri's imminent ascent to geisha mega-stardom that she'll do anything to get in the way, coming between Sayuri and her budding romances with both the handsome Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a charming businessman Sayuri has been in love with since childhood, and Nobu (Koji Yakusho), a former soldier badly wounded in WWI.
If this all sounds complicated, it is, and unfortunately it's to the film's detriment. Simply put, 'Memoirs of a Geisha' makes the same fatal mistake made by so many of the worst movie adaptations of great books -- in attempting to pack 500-plus pages of dense narrative into two-and-a-half hours, it forgets that it was the book's three-dimensional rendering of its characters that made us care about its epic story in the first place.
There is so much packed in to the story that the plot overwhelms all else and none of the film's three women are allowed to shine. The beautiful and talented Zhang does her best, but her Chiyo/Sayuri is such a doe-eyed innocent that she never comes off as more than a cipher. And while I've liked Yeoh in just about everything else she's been in, here she is painted in such bland, broad strokes that she just fades into the art direction. Finally, I just never understood Li's machinations as Hatsumomo -- she's so devious that she may as well be twirling a mustache, but she's never given any coherent motivation.
Director Rob Marshall rose to instant fame with his Best Picture Oscar winner 'Chicago,' and according to this disc's supplements, he was extensively wooed by the producers of 'Memoirs of a Geisha' after the original director, Steven Spielberg, dropped out. I have no idea what Spielberg would have done, but Marshall's 'Geisha' is so ruthlessly over-produced and art directed that it's almost all surfaces. With so many slow-mo close-ups of kimonos fluttering in the wind and long flowing locks of rain-swept hair, the film is certainly beautiful to look at, but it's hard not to wish that the same level of slavish devotion had been put into delivering a coherent and engaging screenplay.
It's even more of a shame because there's good deal of interesting subtext simmering beneath the movie's glittering surfaces. It is not until a good two-thirds of the way into the film that the moral complexities of the forced sex business are even touched upon, as well as what impact the American military and other cultural forces may have had in putting an end to the era of the geisha. Ultimately Sayuri will be forced to make her choice between suitors -- paralleling Japan's own cultural choice of whether to retain the geisha, or abandon it in favor of more Western notions of gender, relationships and sexuality. But while that choice might have formed the foundation of an important and timely epic, instead it's simply presented as an afterthought in this disappointing filmed adaptation.
'Memoirs of a Geisha' may be a narrative failure, but it is without a doubt a tantalizing, visually dazzling technical achievement. That makes it perfect eye-candy for high-def, and overall this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer delivers.
The good points are many. Though technically now a catalog release, 'Memoirs of a Geisha' is only a couple of years old, so the source is just about perfect, with nary a blemish to be found. The film has clearly been scrubbed from top to bottom, with grain almost completely zapped. Colors are delectable, with primaries (especially red and blue) quite striking, but even the more subtle gradients of hue are rendered with clarity and smoothness. Fleshtones are not particularly realistic due to some overt tweaking, but 'Geisha' never fails to tickle the eye.
The bad points are twofold. First off, black crush is just too strong for my taste -- fine details get lost in the shadows, and only bright scenes look truly detailed and three dimensional. Secondly, while the film's frequent use of soft-focus filtering and lots of hazy, smoke-filled interiors doesn't help matters, even when these effects are not employed, the source looks a bit too soft, with the image never popping off the screen like the absolute best Blu-ray titles I've seen.
Still, 'Geisha' certainly looks grand enough to warrant a solid four stars for video. Just don't expect perfection or a new reference standard.
The audio on 'Memoirs of a Geisha' is even more captivating than the video. From the go-for-broke sound design to John Williams' Academy Award-nominated score, 'Geisha' just about bashes you over the head with sonic delight. This may not be an action film, but it's just as dazzling.
Sony once again grants this one an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48kHz/16-bit/4.6mpbs), and it's never less than lush, expansive and detailed. Although Williams' score has been criticized by some for being a lift of his own work on 'Seven Years in Tibet' it sounds great here as it fills up the entire soundfield with excellent depth and clarity. Dialogue is also pitch perfect, and nicely balanced throughout. Low bass is rock solid, but never overpowering.
Surround use is also a treat. Discrete effects are common in just about every scene, with great imaging and pinpoint accuracy creating a consistently immersive experience. Atmosphere is sustained and quite effective, from subtle sounds (such as rain, wind, etc.) to more pronounced uses of constructed studio effects that never sound artificial. All of this adds up to a very carefully crafted and well-modulated soundtrack.
Although it was originally announced that this Blu-ray edition of 'Memoirs of a Geisha' would include only a slim set of supplements, it in fact comes packed to the gills with all of the extras from the previously released two-disc standard-def DVD.
First up are two screen-specific audio commentaries -- the first with director Rob Marshall and co-producer John DeLuca, and the second with costume designer Colleen Atwood, production designer John Myhre and editor Pietro Scalia. While there's certainly a lot of information included in each of these tracks, I personally found them interesting only in fits and starts. As you might expect, both commentaries include a seemingly endless amount of fawning over the impeccable craftsmanship on display in the film, but unless you happen to be pursuing a career in costume and/or production design, the first track (featuring the director and producers) is probably your best bet. I found the portions of the commentary having to with the lengths to which the film's producers went to woo Marshall to the project after Steven Spielberg dropped out to be most fascinating, with Marshall himself coming off as endearingly humble when he admits to being "as surprised as anyone" that he's managed to have a successful career as a director.
Unlike the overlong commentary tracks, the eleven making-of featurettes are much more breezy and better suited to the material, considering the highly visual nature of the film. Each segment runs somewhere between 5 and 15 minutes, and combined they form a very nice and thorough hour-plus documentary.
Focusing on the film's lengthy pre-production, the first trio of vignettes -- "Sayuri's Journey: From the Novel to the Screen" (14 min), "The Road to Japan" (12 min) and "Geisha Boot Camp" (12 min) -- fit together nicely. After suffering through three failed attempts to adapt his story for the screen, author Arthur Golden went on to see several deals at major studios fall apart before Marshall came on board. "Geisha Boot Camp," meanwhile, almost plays like a reality TV show -- watch as the film's actresses undergo what to my Western eyes looks like a form of sartorial torture in order to be transformed into a geisha.
Critics of the film are likely to find a lot of ammunition for claims that 'Geisha' is just a watered-down, Hollywood-ized bastardization of Asian culture in the main batch of production featurettes. "The Look of a Geisha" (16 min.), "A Geisha's Dance" (8 min.) and "The World of a Geisha" (9 min.) all focus on the tech crew's efforts to "modernize" the costumes, design and aesthetics of the period for Western audiences.
"Music of Memoirs" (9 min.) is enjoyable, if only because John Williams makes the bizarre admission that 'Geisha' is the only film he ever asked to score. Also fun are "The Way of the Sumo" (6 min.) and "A Day with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa" (9 min.), even if they really don't have much to do with the actual film itself. The latter is particularly amusing, in that the world-renowned Chef Nobu seems to have been asked to make a cameo in the movie only so that he would whip up some great meals for the cast and crew.
Finally, "Building the Hanamachi" (12 min.) gives set designer John Myhre more time to talk about building all the sets, while "The Rob Marshall Story" (10 min.) features more of the director wondering why he has a career (if he delivers another big-budget flop like 'Geisha,' he may not have to wonder much longer).
If you are not Geisha'd out by this point, other extras include two Photo Galleries ("Behind-the-Scenes" and "Costume Illustrations") featuring about 80 stills total, and a trailer for 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' which Sony announced for Blu-ray release earlier this year but then yanked without reason. Hopefully the trailer's inclusion here means that the film is back on track for a Blu-ray release soon. Alas, no trailer for 'Memoirs of a Geisha' is included.
(Note that all of the video-based material listed above is presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 only.)
Another case of a "bad flick, good disc," 'Memoirs of a Geisha' is hamstrung by a poorly adapted screenplay that's so overwrought with plotting that it woefully fails to render its characters in an coherent and engaging way. As a Blu-ray release, however, this one's pretty grand. Sony has produced a very fine transfer and soundtrack, and the extras are quite extensive. If you happen to be a fan of the film, this one's an easy recommend. If not, this disc's technical prowess alone may be enough to justify a rent.