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Memoirs of a Geisha

An epic romantic period piece with deeply felt performances, beautiful costumes and exquisitely framed sets, Memoirs of a Geisha pretty much defines the phrase ''Oscar contender.''


Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden, Geisha guides us into this fascinating Japanese subculture. Set in the late 1920s, the story begins with 9-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) being forced to leave her family and work in a geisha house. Although strikingly beautiful with slate blue eyes, Chiyo has no interest in the lifestyle, especially since she is cruelly treated by the jealous geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li). But that changes after she meets and falls for the good-hearted Chairman (Ken Watanabe). After he shows her kindness, she decides becoming a geisha will be her ticket to being with him. Under the tutelage of mentor Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Chiyo blossoms into the legendary geisha Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), who captivates the most powerful of men. Still, she secretly hopes the man who once showed her compassion will come and take her away. Sweeping unrequited love? You bet!


There's been some flack over the fact Chinese actresses Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang are playing Geisha 's core characters--speaking English with Japanese accents, no less. But it's quite obvious from the start that these three stunning women are absolutely the best choices. Gong (Raise the Red Lantern) is deliciously wicked as the green-eyed Hatsumomo, who simply resents the life she's chosen and takes it out on those around her. Yeoh plays Mameha as a wise and motherly figure, similar to the role she portrayed in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's Ziyi, though, who once again transfixes us as the determined Sayuri. Having to learn English for the role, the language barrier does seem at times to hinder that fierceness in the actress which we've come to love in films such as Crouching Tiger and House of Flying Daggers. But there's an unparalleled grace to this young actress, and she makes Geisha her own. With these three strong turns, you don't need any men--but it should be noted that Watanabe (The Last Samurai) does a fine job as the dashing romantic lead.


One wonders what producer Steven Spielberg, who was long attached to direct, would have done with his dream project. Luckily, Chicago's Rob Marshall fills in nicely, elegantly detailing this captivating but vanishing Japanese custom, in which a geisha transforms herself from an ordinary woman with feelings to a delicate butterfly who arms herself with self-sufficient charm. The film is also breathtakingly scenic, with arresting contrasts in colors, fueled by spectacular costume designs by the Oscar-winning Colleen Atwood. Still, Geisha may be tagged by some as boring Oscar fare á la The English Patient (I can just hear Seinfeld's Elaine now). But for those of us who enjoy being taken to another place and time, it's a real treat.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.