Memoirs of a Geisha (2005): Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh,

Late in November of 2005, Oprah Winfrey was on my TV getting all effusive over Memoirs of a Geisha. To hear Oprah describe it, it was the most moving, most beautifully filmed cinematic masterpiece in the history of box offices. Having seen Oprah go overboard once or twice before, I raised a skeptical eyebrow.

I eventually rented the movie anyway because I’m intrigued by Japanese culture in general, and because it stars Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh, a pair of beautiful Chinese actresses that I loved in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which truly was an astonishing movie.

I have not read Arthur Golden‘s novel Memoirs of a Geisha, on which the film is based. I have only a minimal understanding of geisha history and tradition. I’m still working on the subtleties of sushi.

The movie — which scored a weak 35 percent at Rotten Tomatoes — is said to be less than the book. Roger Ebert calls it “broad melodrama,” and with that I can concur. Memoirs of a Geisha is a typical soap opera, enhanced by Japanese scenery and costumes. The story arc is obvious, and the characters are off the shelf. It’s not a film that demands your complete attention.

It’s also not a film that feels very Japanese. Instead, it presents values of humility, obedience, and propriety as oppressions to be overthrown in favor of a more Western individualism and self-determination. Perhaps this is what appealed to Oprah. Conversely, the American men who eventually enter the story with World War II are all lascivious boors. Instead of insights, we get stereotypes.

I ended up giving Memoirs of a Geisha an ambivalent 3 out of 5 stars at Netflix. It’s something to watch on a dreary Saturday afternoon if you have some popcorn and nothing better to do.