Memoirs of a Geisha

Rob Marshall's fluent film of Arthur Golden's 1997 best seller puts new luster on the word "gorgeous." In telling the story of Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), the geisha who wowed Japan in the years before World War II, Marshall, cinematographer Dion Beebe and costume designer Colleen Atwood sweep you off to a rapturous secret world where you'll swear you can feel the texture of a kimono and the heat of a blush on a young girl's cheek. After the hyper pacing of Marshall's Oscar-winning Chicago, his style here is fluid, measured and — truth be told — a little distant. The passion that the virginal Sayuri feels for the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) never catches fire. But the acting does. Zhang is loveliness incarnate. And the great Michelle Yeoh, her co-star in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, possesses a touching gravity as Mameha, Sayuri's mentor. The scene stealer is Gong Li as Hatsumomo, the geisha Sayuri dethrones. She's a live wire, and watching her try to destroy her rival gives the film the jolt it needs as Robin Swicord's script strains to connect the dots. Any doubts about three Chinese actresses speaking English with Japanese accents vanish in the face of their deeply felt performances and the world Marshall conjures with magical finesse.

From The Archives Issue 107: April 27, 1972