"Memoirs of a Geisha" is one of the most beautiful-looking films in recent memory, both in terms of its production and costume design.
Unfortunately, it's one of the most empty-headed, as well. The filmmakers have taken the source material Arthur Golden's best-selling novel and turned it into a glossy Hollywood production with the overripe melodrama you'd expect from a television soap opera, not a supposed epic drama.
They've also included a ridiculous, contrived ending created specifically for this film adaptation. And unfortunately, the climactic sequence undercuts the rest of the movie.
As for complaints about the casting of Chinese actresses in the roles of Japanese characters, that really isn't the issue. It's more the "Hollywood-ization" of the material.
Ziyi Zhang stars in this period drama as Sayuri, who is sold to a geisha house at a young age. At first, she is resistant to the idea of becoming a geisha and tries to run away (she's hoping to reunite with her sister, who has suffered an even worse fate).
Consequently, Sayuri finds herself used in a slavelike capacity especially by Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the house's resident diva, who is jealous of the young, blue-eyed beauty.
Fortunately, two people show her kindness: the wealthy Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), an aging geisha who decides to take Sayuri under her wing.
Under her tutelage, Sayuri quickly learns the necessary skills to become a much-desired geisha. But she's still unable to win the affections of the Chairman.
Director Rob Marshall was the wrong choice for this project. He's clearly trying to create a particular look and style. But he includes a curiously out of place, geisha production number that appears to have come straight from his Oscar-winning film musical "Chicago."
Marshall and his cast are saddled with a cliche-ridden script (courtesy of screenwriters Robin Swicord and Doug Wright), which reduces some of the characters to one-note caricatures, particularly Gong's haughty Hatsumomo.
Still, Zhang has considerable presence, as does her "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" co-star Yeoh, who brings a measure of maturity and calm to her role and livens up a few scenes.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" is rated PG-13 for a few scenes of violence (including beatings and violence against women), simulated sex and other sexual contact, sexually suggestive talk, and scattered use of mild profanity (religiously based). Running time: 145 minutes.