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Review: 'Geisha' gorgeous but empty

Movie beautiful to look at, not much to see

By Paul Clinton
For CNN.com

Geisha
Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang in "Memoirs of a Geisha."

FACT BOX

'Memoirs of a Geisha'

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe

Directed by: Rob Marshall

Screenplay by: Robin Swicord, based on Arthur Golden's novel

Studio: Columbia

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Review
Movies

(CNN) -- Dion Beebe's lush cinematography, John Myhre's stunning production design, Colleen Atwood's brilliant costumes, John Williams' stirring score and a superb international cast can't take away the fact that the film adaptation of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel, "Memoirs of a Geisha," falls somewhere between a "Cinderella" fable and a really good episode of "Knots Landing."

Which is to say, it doesn't do the richly detailed novel justice.

Now, a film is not a novel, and an adaptation of a novel into a film is usually all about choices: what to leave out, what to keep, and how to tell the story with cinematic language. If it's a well-loved novel such as "Memoirs of a Geisha" (or, for that matter, a "Harry Potter" book), those choices are rather hard.

Robin Swicord's screenplay for "Geisha" adheres fairly well to the bare bones of the source material and it's well structured into three acts. However, it's clear that director Rob Marshall is more interested in making this film a standard romance rather than giving the audience any detailed insight into the fascinating world of the geisha, something that gave the book its distinctiveness.

The story is narrated by Shizuko Hoshi, overplaying the lead, Sayuri, as she looks back at her amazing life.

The story begins in 1929. It's the end of the geisha's golden era. A 9-year-old girl, Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), is sold by her penniless family to work as a servant in a okiya (geisha house). Young Chiyo seems destined to toil away forever as a worthless servant.

When she is 15, however, a chance meeting with the powerful Chairman (Ken Watanabe) changes her life forever. She vows to become a geisha someday and have the Chairman as her patron. She's also fallen in love with this man, someone she can never have.

Now played by Ziyi Zhang -- an actress of luminous beauty -- young Chiyo is taken under the wing of a legendary geisha Mameha, played Michelle Yeoh. After numerous obstacles she is transformed and is given a geisha name, Sayuri.

Little complexity

But Sayuri has made a few enemies along the way, the nastiest one being Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the most popular geisha. Hatsumomo took a dislike to Sayuri back in her servant days; she's now a terrible rival as they begin vying for the same clients.

Sayuri's life takes another turn when World War II begins and the ancient art of the geisha is changed forever. Many geisha houses are forced to close and Sayuri's struggles for survival.

And that's pretty much the story. The whole complex life of the geishas, and the world in which they live -- so beautifully examined in the novel -- has been streamlined for mass consumption. The love story has been dummied down. Gone also are the bleak realities for women in pre-war Japan.

Yes, a movie is not a book. But in the case of "Geisha," the filmmakers would have done well to incorporate more from the novel. What has emerged on screen is somewhat hollow; I never felt an emotional attachment to any of the characters. What we have is a soap opera, set in Japan -- an opulent, beautifully photographed soap opera, but a soap opera nonetheless, with all the cardboard that implies.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" is a big, bright package with little inside.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" opens in limited release Friday, with a nationwide release December 23.

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