John Lyttle - The eastern affront

Film - This depiction of oppression is decorously polite, writes John Lyttle

Memoirs of a Geish

I'm one of those people who feel passionately about Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha - I hated it. I hated that Golden never really got round to giving his heroine, Sayuri, a personality, preferring to strong-arm reader empathy through almost parodic Dickensian cruelty. In the first hundred pages, Sayuri is sold by her fisherman father, is beaten with bamboo sticks, is betrayed by her elder sister, is framed for kimono defacement, falls from a roof and is orphaned. How does Thelma Ritter sum up the ingenue's extravagantly melodramatic travails in All About Eve again? Oh yes: "Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end."

I hated that the author was wildly applauded for pointing out that femininity is a performance - apparently shocking news to all those who have spent the past 40 years living on Mars, under a rock, with their eyes squeezed shut and their fingers jammed in their ears. I hated that while Golden went on (and on and on) about womanhood being a theatrical turn policed by misogyny, he still had no problem peddling the ancient, creaky myth about suffering defining the female condition (see above). Like Madam Butterfly, Sayuri is a slave to love, but learns what poor Butterfly couldn't. She learns not to expect fulfilment and is judged wise for accepting the knowledge. Debasement completes her. She is finally content to be "the half-wife" of the Chairman.

You remember the Chairman. He's the rich guy who importunes a sobbing nine-year-old in the street, buys her an ice lolly and who, for his later pleasure, secretly arranges for the child to be groomed in the subtle arts of pleasing a man - that is, mincing around in platform heels and New Romantic make-up. When they come to make the stage musical, I see Gary Glitter in the part, prison sentence permitting.

So how's the movie? Well, visually, the Chicago director Rob Marshall has gone for a Zhang Yimou rip-off - think sumptuously languid. Yet it belongs to that genre of film which can't stop itself from helplessly, hopelessly debunking its literary source. The film of Charlotte Gray exposed Sebastian Faulks's bestseller for the prestige potboiler it always was, and the celluloid Geisha similarly abandons the original's scholarly mien to reveal the soap opera bubbling just below. If this version were a US prime-time drama, believe me, it would be called Ming Dynasty.

There's even a bitch. And what a bitch. As the bitter and twisted Hatsumomo, the remarkable Gong Li is everything Zhang Ziyi's passive Sayuri isn't. She's no angel and she's certainly no lady, un-like Michelle Yeoh's cool and collected Mameha, the geisha queen who mentors Sayuri for her own mysterious reasons. Hatsumomo's hair-pulling, fire-setting, back-stabbing rages have the same frightening grandeur as Faye Dunaway's midnight eruptions in the Joan Crawford bio-pic Mommie Dearest. When she blows, the world knows to get out of the lava path. We're told Hatsumomo is perhaps the perfect geisha, but (shrewdly) that is not how Gong Li presents her. The audience is permitted to witness what the paying customer isn't. In private, ramrod posture is exchanged for a slovenly slouch, and the pleasing smile immediately melts into a scowl. Behind the snow-white mask, Hatsumomo is a monster, and you understand precisely why. When this kabuki demon departs two-thirds of the way through, the plot loses what little mo-mentum it had and breaks down into one pretty visual after another. Or, to put it another way, anyone allergic to cherry blossom should not be seated in the first five rows.

Not that this will trouble culture vultures who demand that even their faux-oriental art be pictorially and conceptually formal or, at a pinch, stilted. Here's a movie where the Chairman lays eyes on his beloved after a gap of five years and says, "It's as if the war never happened", and observants will be sorely tempted to raise their hands and answer: "Honourable sir, that's because it didn't." Mindful of the US market and the upcoming Oscars, Memoirs of a Geisha is in and out of the Second World War with a single voice-over and a shot of a bolt of blood-red silk twisting prettily in a mountain stream. The film's subject is oppression, yet the tone remains as decorously polite as Sayuri herself.

Anything unpleasant is avoided at all costs. Or wilfully ignored. Asked about the controversial casting of three Chinese actresses in three Japanese roles at a time of paranoid political relations between the two countries, Marshall was recently moved to reply: "We cast for the roles, period." Given that Hollywood has habitually and lazily bullied Chinese and Japanese actors into impersonating each other's nationalities, wouldn't it have been more honest to have resorted to the sort of cliche Memoirs of a Geisha routinely trades in, and have replied: "They all look the same to me"? The box office surely won't mind.