Adapted from Arthur Golden's novel, Memoirs Of A Geisha stars three Chinese actresses (Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh) playing Japanese geishas in broken English. On a practical level, their casting is understandable: They're three of the world's most beautiful actresses, and Japan currently has no international stars that approach their luminosity. And yet that doesn't make the film's generalized "Orientalism" any less awkward and distracting, especially when it's intended to evoke the particulars of an insular world that time has thoroughly eclipsed. Pouring oceans of cash into colorful period bric-a-brac, no doubt as scrupulously researched as Golden's book, the film nonetheless feels unmistakably Western, plagued by a falsely theatrical tone that's more in keeping with '30s Hollywood than '30s Japan. As an unwieldy piece of studio exoticism, it's this year's The Last Samurai.
Set in the decades sandwiching World War II, Memoirs opens in a poor seaside fishing village, where two sisters are whisked away to the Gion district of Kyoto and evaluated by the Mother (Kaori Momoi) of an okiya, or geisha house. Only one is considered suitable, and after surviving a youth filled with rigorous labor and training, she grows into Zhang Ziyi, an impossibly beautiful young woman whose elegance and intellect make her the city's most desired companion. Under Yeoh's skilled tutelage, Zhang fetches the highest bid for her virginity at auction, but her popularity doesn't sit well with housemate Gong Li, an aging diva who tries to sabotage her at every opportunity. Meanwhile, Zhang secretly pines for Ken Watanabe, a sophisticated gentleman and client whose war-scarred friend and business associate (Kôji Yakusho) takes an increasingly possessive interest in her. These stormy relationships are broken up by the war, which leads everyone to scatter to the countryside and marks the beginning of the end for the geisha tradition.
Memoirs Of A Geisha makes it known early and often that being a geisha cannot be likened to prostitution, because this austere tradition of companionship has so many more dimensions than merely turning tricks. Only after the war, when Zhang receives a crude proposition from a visiting American military officer, do those distinctions evaporate, but the film never quite captures the tragedy of her dying universe, which throws her indentured servitude into sharp relief. The film comes to life whenever the cartoonishly vindictive Gong throws a tantrum, but she played virtually the same role in Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad, which presented a far more compelling rationale for her star fits. Without her, this expensive piece of backlot pageantry turns vivid history into an ossified tchotchke.