- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

“Memoirs of a Geisha,” a sumptuously faithful and evocative adaptation of the 1997 best-seller by Arthur Golden, attempts to elevate the chick flick into regions of cultural exoticism and refined pathos where it rarely intrudes.

As a rule, such intrusions are irrelevant to the genre’s bedrock appeal, which pits an essentially virtuous, although permissibly tarnished, heroine against cutthroat feminine competition, a rival whose makeup is likely to resist tender and generous impulses.

Such a rivalry, recalling Snow White’s survival of a wicked stepmother, animates a great deal of Mr. Golden’s plot. “Memoirs” begins its flashback chronicle in the late 1920s, when Satsu and Chiyo, the young daughters of a recently widowed peasant fisherman, are sold into bondage in Kyoto. The older Satsu is quickly funneled into prostitution. Chiyo becomes one of the juvenile servants in a geisha house, or “okiya,” in the Gion district. The great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) once made a film titled “Sisters of the Gion.” His familiarity with the milieu may have surpassed many others, since he lived with a geisha sister after the death of their mother.

Chiyo bears up under recurrent beatings and humiliations, then blossoms in adolescence, making it feasible for her to be schooled as an apprentice geisha. The expectation is that her earnings will amortize years of exaggerated debt and enrich the house, operated by crones nicknamed Granny and Auntie. Ziyi Zhang, the young Chinese star who emerged as the treacherous ingenue of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” assumes the role of Chiyo from a beguiling little girl, Suzuka Ohgo, at a suitable juncture. Once a budding geisha, the heroine is renamed Sayuri, and an ongoing domestic catfight is conducted on more or less equal terms.

Hatsumomo, the resident diva and supervixen, has it in for Chiyo as desperate child and Sayuri as attractive rival. Her enmity, nothing if not extravagant, proves spiteful and diverting catnip for Li Gong, the original breakthrough star among contemporary Chinese actresses. She approaches 40 with no apparent lessening of intensity or glamour as a movie goddess, eminently qualified for seductive troublemaking.

Sayuri’s chances are enhanced by recruiting an older geisha as a kind of finishing-school mentor: Michelle Yeoh, who played Miss Zhang’s noble antagonist in “Crouching Tiger,” embodies this cagey but protective influence as Mameha. So director Rob Marshall does not lack for photogenic or emotional assets at the top of his cast, curiously dominated by Chinese women, while the principal male roles, suitors called Chairman and Nobu, respectively, fall to Japanese actors Ken Watanabe and Koji Yakusho.

It’s also amusing to see that Mr. Marshall remains preoccupied with rival showgirls, since his breakthrough occurred with the film version of “Chicago” three years ago. In retrospect, an imaginary challenge comes to mind: Could he have classed up something as outrageous as Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”?

A graceful shift is made to English-language narration and then dialogue in an early sequence of “Memoirs.” Contrasting dialects may remain a minor nuisance for some spectators, but the movie can presumably count on the pictorial curiosity of readers who enjoyed Mr. Golden’s sense of immersion, both harrowing and esthetic, in the culture of a geisha upbringing in the years that culminated in World War II. I wasn’t all that enthralled with the literary excursion and feel obliged to Mr. Marshall and his colleagues for distilling it as handsomely as they have while showcasing a stellar group of actresses.

I think it’s difficult to feel that the subject matter “belongs” to American filmmakers and audiences in the same way that the content of “Crash” or “Cinderella Man” or even “The Producers” does, but “Memoirs” looms as a very plausible Academy Award contender. In fact, it’s something of a shoo-in in such pictorially sophisticated areas as cinematography, production design and costume design. Mr. Marshall inherited the project after a false start by Steven Spielberg, who remains a co-producer and may have steered a major atmospheric collaborator, composer John Williams, toward a haunting new score, augmented by solo passages for Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman.

The interesting sporting question is whether one or more of the leading actresses will also be in competition during Hollywood’s awards season. I see no credible stumbling block to such a gesture, particularly in the case of Li Gong, arguably overdue for a catch-up nomination at the very least. The industry has certainly found pretexts for nominating less dynamic and accomplished performers in the past. Not that her flamboyant, vindictive Hatsumomo needs a negative excuse for consideration.

***

TITLE: “Memoirs of a Geisha”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional sexual candor and violence in a historical setting)

CREDITS: Directed by Rob Marshall. Screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Arthur Golden. Cinematography by Dion Beebe. Production design by John Myhre. Costume design by Colleen Atwood. Makeup design by Niriko Watanabe and Ben Nye Jr. Music by John Williams, with cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma and violin solos by Itzhak Perlman.

RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes

WEB SITE: www.memoirsofageisha.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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