director Rob Marshall's pretty but empty (or pretty empty) film has all the elements of an Oscar contender: solid adaptation (from Arthur Golden's bestseller), beautiful locale, good acting, lush cinematography. But there's something missing at the heart, which leaves the viewer sucked in, then left completely detached from what's going on.
It's hard to find fault with the fascinating story, which traces a young girl's determination to free herself from the imprisonment of scullery maid to geisha, then from the imprisonment of geisha to a woman allowed to love. Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), a young girl with curious blue eyes, is sold to a geisha house and doomed to pay off her debt as a cleaning girl until a stranger named The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) shows her kindness. She is inspired to work hard and become a geisha in order to be near the Chairman, with whom she has fallen in love. An experienced geisha (Michelle Yeoh) chooses to adopt her as an apprentice and to use as a pawn against her rival, the wicked, legendary Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Chiyo (played as an older woman by Ziyi Zhang), now renamed Sayuri, becomes the talk of the town, but as her path crosses again and again with the Chairman's, she finds the closer she gets to him the further away he seems. Her newfound "freedom" turns out to be trapping, as men are allowed to bid on everything from her time to her virginity.
Some controversy swirled around casting Chinese actresses in the three main Japanese roles, but Zhang, Yeoh and Gong in particular ably prove they're the best for the part. It's admirable that all the actors attempted to speak Japanese-accented English, but some of the dialogue will still prove difficult to understand; perhaps it contributes to some of the emotion feeling stilted. Geisha has all the ingredients of a sweeping, heartbreaking epic and follows the recipe to a T, but in the end it's all dressed up with no place to go.--Ellen A. Kim
Memoirs of a Geisha [DVD]