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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

Logline: In prewar Japan, a young girl is sold to a geisha house where she struggles to find love and success.

The Good Idea: Cinderella in a kimono. A lavish, exotic love story about a down trodden young woman.

Why it didn't work.

Most of Act I is devoted to Chiyo's quest to reunite with her sister after they've been sold. It's a strong desire and one the audience can readily empathize with. However, at the end of Act I, they separate and the voice over declares that she will never see her again. The dramatic tension created by the question "Will she ever find her sister?" evaporates and the film must find a new direction.

The new direction is the question, "Will Chiyo ever become a geisha?" Of course the answer is yes, but she achieves this goal too easily. We like our protagonists to struggle before they succeed so it feels like they've earned their victory ("wax on, wax off"). What was supposed to take years only took Chiyo weeks to master. The driving force behind her training did not come from the protagonist Chiyo but rather from Mameha, the head of the rival geisha house (who in turn is under instructions from the Chairman).

The diva of the geisha house, Hatsumomo, is wonderfully set up as her antagonist, representing a possible future for Chiyo (now Sayuri). However, Hatsumomo is not responsible for Chiyo's greatest betrayal. When Sayuri hatches a plan to sleep with an American solider to ward off a potential danna in Nobu, she is betrayed by Pumpkin who brings the Chairman (Sayuri's true love) instead.

Instead of facing her greatest enemy, Sayuri is blind-sided by her enemy's protege. What Pumpkin had to gain by this betrayal is never revealed but the betrayal is rendered moot because shortly afterwards, the Chairman confesses his love for Sayuri and how he engineered her education as a geisha. She wins his love but doesn't truly earn it.

In Romeo and Juliet, the family's blood feud keeps the lovers apart. The Chairman is a wealthy and powerful man. Sayuri is poor and can be had for a price. There really isn't anything to keep them apart. We are offered some notion of loyalty in that the Chairman owes Nobu his life and that he waited until Nobu's affections for Sayuri were dashed before he acted on those feelings. However, this felt more like an afterthought rather than as an ongoing dramatic tension throughout the picture (will the Chairman choose the love of a woman or loyalty to his best friend?).

A great opportunity was lost by skipping over the World War II section of the story. What other skills did Sayuri possess that helped her survive? She was sent into the mountains by the Chairman and waited for the end of the war. Meanwhile, Mameha sold her kimonos and started a hotel. This makes Mameha more interesting than Sayuri, a dangerous thing to do to your protagonist.

Sayuri's struggle doesn't add up to much. She gets the Chairman in the end but what did she have to give up? What piece of her soul did she lose? What new principles of life did she have to embrace?

The movie is unapolegetically Hollywood in that it follows the axiom, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. However, they forgot the good story.


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