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Memoirs of a Geisha

  • Film

Time Out says

THEY LOVE TO WATCH HER STRUT Up-and-comer Zhang hits the catwalk.

Imperious, witty and impossibly alluring, China's Gong Li makes for a devilishly magnetic geisha in Rob Marshall's megabudget version of the 1997 best-seller by Arthur Golden. Gong is playing a character who's also playing a part: The geisha's life in pre--World War II Japan was nothing if not intensely structured, a daily grind, as we learn, of makeup, dance lessons and constant deference to men (but not sex, as many assume). And still, the actor finds room to establish a keening sense of sadness, jealousy and sacrifice.

Alas, Gong doesn't play the lead. That plum part, a character sold into slavery at age nine and finessed into a profitable high-end attraction over a decade filled with suitors, excitement and war, goes to vacant Ziyi Zhang, whose momentary flash of sass in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is quickly becoming a distant memory. Marshall surrounds his star with lush splendor, draping Zhang in silk kimonos and even gifting her (improbably) with a dazzling production number that recalls his Chicago—but she simply can't supply the needed emotional heft. Yes, the part is one of a made-up porcelain doll, but there needs to be a human being behind it to make the film resonate. It's a major problem, swaying Memoirs dangerously close to Asian objectification and, at that running time, a lot of it. Fans of the novel will supply their own connection to Golden's narrative; everyone else may wonder why such a boring geisha would lure any business at all. (Opens Fri; see Index for venues. See also "Great expectations," page 20.)
Joshua Rothkopf

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