A young girl, Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), is sold to a Kyoto geisha school by her struggling parents where she’s kept as a slave, eventually becoming a top geisha, threatening the position of older rival Hatsumono (Gong Li).
The story feels like an old Hollywood romance as the young Chiyo becomes enamoured with Chairman Wow (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy businessman who shows her a rare act of kindness. She becomes a geisha to win his heart, even as they’re torn apart by World War Two.
Unfortunately the powerful drive of the young girl towards the much older man doesn’t ring true. While the film is at pains to point out the barriers geisha face to falling in love, and how they’re happy with even the slightest affection, it just doesn’t feel like a strong basis for such a powerful emotion.
But it is an astonishingly beautiful production, under the direction of Mary Poppins Returns‘s Rob Marshall, turning this laborious love story into a Kyoto treat. The costumes are dazzling, especially when set against Japanese tourism board backdrops, with a brilliant John Williams score featuring legendary cellist Yo Yo Ma.
There are some brilliant performances, too, in particular from Curse of the Golden Flower‘s Gong Li as the jealous older geisha who viciously sabotages her younger rival, placing the film at an odd intersection between Doctor Zhivago and Showgirls.
Ziyi Zhang, as the adult Chiyo, proves that unlike her Hero co-star Jet Li, she’s just as good-an actor in English as in her native Chinese. She makes a beautiful geisha in scenes to rival the gorgeous Peony Pavilion of House of Flying Daggers. And like in that film the former dancer shows her grace and mastery of the physical aspects of the role.
Michelle Yeoh rounds off an excellent cast which reads as a who’s who of female Asian actors, making this an entirely watchable if imperfect Hollywood-does-Japan film, which is certainly better than some others.