The Reel Review


An impoverished couple in 1929 Japan sells their daughter to an okiya, or geisha house, in Kyoto’s famous Gion entertainment district, where she must learn to survive, first as a servant, then as a geisha, and later, in a quickly modernizing society following Japan’s defeat in World War II. This 2005 historical, romantic drama stars Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe and Gong Li.

Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li in Memoirs of a Geisha

Sumptuous visuals, meticulously crafted sets, incredible costumes and a stirring, evocative score from composer John Williams creates a vivid time capsule of that bygone era, with strong performances from its ensemble cast, despite some shaky English from a couple of them. Ziyi Zhang spoke little English, and Gong Li and Suzuka Ohgo (young Chiyo) spoke none prior to filming and had to learn phonetically. Michelle Yeoh, as the prominent geisha Mameha who takes young Chiyo under her wing, gives the film heart and humor, with Ziyi Zhang exhibiting the perfect combination of youthful innocence, vulnerability and street smarts. Gong Li is equally impressive as the beautiful, villainous Hatsumomo.

Ziyi Zhang and Ken Watanabe in Memoirs of a Geisha

Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) does an excellent job guiding the soapy melodrama through the lavish production and its upending by the arrival of Americans post WWII. While experts in Japanese culture may argue the representation of geisha life is not the most accurate, Memoirs of a Geisha is still a gorgeous, entertaining good time.


Memoirs of a Geisha was nominated for six Oscars, winning three: Best Cinematography, Best Art Director and Best Costume Design

• Despite the enormous popularity of the three lead actresses, the film did receive some backlash for casting them, who all are of Chinese ancestry, as Japanese geishas. Producer Lucy Fisher says no Japanese actresses showed up at the casting call. Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li underwent a six-week geisha boot camp to learn traditional geisha practices of musicianship, dance and tea ceremony.

• Ted Levine, who plays Colonel Derricks in the third act, is best known for his portrayal of serial killer Jame Gumb in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs.

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