"Memoirs of a Geisha": Empty spectacle, beautiful but remote

Arthur Golden's 1997 novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" is an addictive read: an involving, almost Dickensian tale of a young woman's rise from poverty in a fishing village to fame as a Kyoto geisha in the years before World War II, and her subsequent fall in fortunes during the war.

Told in an engaging first-person voice, its details are rich, as if a decorous hand is raising a silk curtain to show us a bygone era.

The film, long in the making, is often ravishingly lovely, which befits a book in which lavish descriptions of kimonos bloom like flowers throughout the story.

But while director Rob Marshall knows what he's doing with color and spectacle (so deftly displayed in the dizzying "Chicago"), his hand is less sure with drama. The tone too often turns shrill and melodramatic, never quite living up to the beauty of its surroundings.

This is the rare studio film that's centered on women, and Marshall has cast three powerhouses in his leading roles: Ziyi Zhang as the title character, Sayuri; Michelle Yeoh as her mentor and teacher, Mameha; and Gong Li as her scheming nemesis, Hatsumomo. (None of this trio of actresses is Japanese, causing the film to receive some accusations of cultural insensitivity. But to make the film at this level, with this budget, Marshall needed big-name stars, and Zhang, Yeoh and Li are Asian-film royalty. You wonder, though, whether a smaller-scale, Japanese-language version of "Memoirs of a Geisha" might have had more impact; surely it would have felt more real.)

The early scenes of "Memoirs of a Geisha" are wrenchingly sad, as young Sayuri (then called Chiyo, and played by child actress Suzuka Ohgo) is sold by her impoverished family and taken to Kyoto, a bustling city that looks to her eyes like miles of rooftops.

Her less pretty sister is rejected by the geisha house and sent away to the pleasure district, and Chiyo's attempt to run away ends in injury.

She is miserable — until a brief encounter with a kind man she calls the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) gives her a glimpse of a better life. "I saw that being a geisha could be a stepping stone to something else: a place in his world," she says in calm voice-over.

Schemes are unveiled, fans are unfurled and accusations are hurled as Chiyo becomes a young woman, changes her name and begins her geisha training.

Marshall, a former stage director, revels in the theatricality of her transformation: It's like "My Fair Lady" with white powder and kimonos. (The lush fabrics are photographed so lovingly as to create a new genre: silk porn.)

Mameha, a famous geisha with an elegantly husky voice, takes Sayuri on as a project, but the two must deal with the formidable Hatsumomo, who will tolerate no competition. "I shall destroy you!" she hisses at Sayuri, fierce and beautiful as a cat.

Li's bitchy role is dispatched with elegant scenery-chewing; Zhang is innocent charm with a spine of steel; while Yeoh glides calmly above the fray, a perfectly groomed mother hen.

This beautiful movie, as it progresses, becomes emotionally remote: like the geisha at its center, it seems to seal off its feelings in favor of a pretty picture.

And Marshall too often sacrifices substance for style: The choppy editing of a dance sequence (which worked splendidly for the spiky, angular choreography of "Chicago") feels like it's concealing some lack, and an assault scene is made more elegant and less disturbing by filming it through a screen.

Ultimately, "Memoirs of a Geisha" compares unfavorably with the book, though it offers pleasures of its own. In a season of noisy blockbusters, its quiet beauty is refreshing, with Zhang's all-too-knowing smile at the end as devastating as any special effect. There is much this geisha knows, and will not tell.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Memoirs of a Geisha," with Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Koji Yakusho, Youki Kudoh, Kaori Momoi, Tsai Chin, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Suzuka Ohgo. Directed by Rob Marshall, from a screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Arthur Golden. 137 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content. Pacific Place.