Originally to have been directed by Steven Spielberg, this big screen adaptation of the bestselling novel of the same name is so sprawling in its period complexity, and takes place in such an unusual setting for a Hollywood film, that an experienced hand on the tiller was always going to be necessary. Taking a story set in pre-war Japan, with an almost exclusively Japanese and Chinese cast, would have been a challenge even for the current master of American cinema.
Instead, the director’s chair eventually went to Rob Marshall who, though Oscar-nominated for his first film, 2002’s Chicago, has hardly shown any indication of special talent. Considering Chicago’s origins on the stage, and the screen adaptation’s largely stage-like, fairly unimaginative approach to making the jump to a different medium, the thought of giving such an inexperienced director such an epic and expensive project for his second feature must have been a major worry – especially with a lead actress taking on her first major English language role.
It does seem rather an odd choice to get a Chinese actress to play a Japanese geisha – a trained courtesan entertainer, and far, far superior to the high-class prostitutes for which they are often mistaken in the west, as sex rarely plays a part in their entertainments. It seems especially odd in an English-language film.
But such has been the rise of Zhang Ziyi since she first attracted international attention in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and then again in Hero and House of Flying Daggers, that she is now the first choice of any major studio looking for an attractive young ‘oriental’ female lead. In support, as the aging geisha mistress and trainer, the first choice ‘attractive older oriental actress’ that is Michelle Yeoh has also been brought back to reunite with her Crouching Tiger co-star.
Yeoh’s extensive English-language work and past partnership with Zhang might, you may think, have enabled her to act as a very useful go-between for director and his lead actress. The only trouble is that Yeoh’s mother tongue is Cantonese, Zhang’s Mandarin.
In other words, they certainly didn’t make it easy for themselves with this film. Chuck in the difficulty of adapting a novel narrated in the first person for the screen and making a book which worked as much for its attempts to unravel pre-war Japanese culture as to create the kind of absorbingly fast-moving plot which most cinemagoers now seem to demand, it just gets even more of a challenge.
With a more experienced director and a better script, they might just have been able to pull it off. The actors all do their best in the face of a suspect script and all the language difficulties, with supporting cast members, Chinese megastar Gong Li, and masterly Japanese actor Ken Watanabe on particularly fine form, but they can’t quite overcome the melodramatic, soap-opera feel that seems to have been the outcome of condensing the novel to fit a running time of less than two-and-a-half hours.
In the end, all that is really left is a beautiful and expensive-looking but strangely emotionless entity, which promises much yet fails to fully deliver. Much like a geisha, really.