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Happy Hooker 

'Memoirs of a Geisha' inappropriately tells the clean, beautiful story of a girl sold into sex slavery

Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha brings the popular novel to life, and it favors melodrama over realistic details. It's a glossy, homogenized tale of a girl sold into sex slavery, with her greatest possible aspiration to be a geisha, essentially a hooker cloaked in ritual and tradition. It's a creepy, sad story masquerading as an elegant tale of powdered faces and fan dancing.

Yeah, I know ... this is one of those projects that has a big following, because people love the book. Legions of readers feel deeply for a story that has inspired a squeaky-clean movie about a girl being sold into a geisha house. It struck me as a strange, desperate tale in search of a happy ending that it just doesn't have. Maybe the book is darker and more disturbing. Shouldn't it be?

A good cast has been assembled for the movie (the fact that some Chinese actresses play Japanese women in the movie has caused a stir overseas, but they are decent in their roles). Ziyi Zhang is especially impressive as Sayuri, a girl who spends her young life training to be a geisha while pining for the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a rich, geisha-house-frequenting businessman who buys her a treat when she's way underage and leers at her blue eyes. The Chairman gives her his handkerchief, which she hides in a safe place and worships in a fashion that is, I say again, totally creepy. It's her Linus blanket.

During the course of the story, Sayuri goes from house slave to a renowned geisha whose "deflowering rights" sell for a record amount of yen on the pervert market. Sayuri then goes into exile during World War II, only to reappear as a shadow of her former powdered self in order to entertain American GIs. The plot then turns to an attempt at finding Sayuri that happy ending.

The happy ending is that Sayuri finally gets to make out with the Chairman. So, what is supposed to be a story about a woman's struggles and eventual triumph is actually a fantasy yarn for older dudes.

Zhang keeps the movie endurable, and she is in good company. Suzuka Ohgo does an excellent job playing the young Sayuri (actually named Chiyo; Sayuri is the name she gets when training to be a geisha). Li Gong is appropriately treacherous as Sayuri's chief competition in the geisha house, and Michelle Yeoh (who starred along Zhang in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) does the best she can with the role of Mameha, Sayuri's Geisha trainer.

The movie passes by easy enough, but in the end, the whole thing comes off as kind of weird. We're supposed to feel good that some old creepy dude who bought a sad little hooker-in-training a cherry slush gets to score with her years later. I can think of many far more uplifting stories than that.

For a long time, Steven Spielberg was in line to direct the film. The excellent Munich is in theaters now, so it's a good thing this one left the director's slate (his company, Dreamworks, had a hand in production). Marshall, who directed Chicago, knows how to make a beautiful-looking film. Unfortunately, he also shows his ability to helm a ship sailing through shallow waters.

Zhang is always a marvel to behold on screen, whether she's in one of her softer modes or kicking major ass in a martial arts film. Truthfully, I was hoping for a moment when Sayuri got fed up with the whole geisha/hooker lifestyle, took out a samurai sword and disemboweled the Chairman and his sick cronies. That actually would've been a much happier ending.

More by Bob Grimm

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