Memoirs of a Geisha

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Poised to burst onto the landscape of Western cinema, Gong Li has tackled her second English-language endeavor, Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” with memorable results.

Li, who portrays sultry villainess Hatsumomo, found the experience of performing in the film demanding. “I studied dialect and accent training, as well as geisha movements and actions,” she says of the process. “For instance, in one scene I needed to toss a fan in a specific way — it was a very difficult maneuver. Mr. Marshall told me it was a difficult action, but said he believed I could do it. I practiced many times, more than a thousand times a day. This is something a geisha would have practiced extensively, and from a very early age.”

The actress, who has won awards in China and from the New York Film Critics Circle (“Farewell, My Concubine”), is portraying an individual so flamboyant that it can prove tricky territory to navigate, as Hatsumomo is a scene-stealer. She “wears a kimono with attitude,” as costume designer Colleen Atwood puts it. Often the result can become a caricature, more so than a lived-in character.

Marshall was attuned to these pitfalls, wary of the potential for surface-level performance. “It would have been easy to play her as a one-dimensional villain,” the “Chicago” helmer says. “But Gong Li gives her a three-dimensionality with a sadness and fragility that make Hatsumomo incredibly compelling.”

Marshall’s decision to cast Chinese actresses — Li and star Ziyi Zhang among them — to play Japanese geishas stirred some controversy. The director also chose Malaysian Michelle Yeoh for the role of Mameha, mentor to Zhang’s Sayuri. But for Li it is not an issue.

“I had read (Arthur Golden’s) book and liked the story,” she says, “but most importantly, I liked the role. Despite my being Chinese or Japanese, she’s a woman, first and foremost, with all the characteristics of being a woman. … She’s a rebel. In those days, a geisha could not have her own love, so she had a lover secretly. Then she was deprived of her own love, her own feelings. She has great love and great hate. I thought there must be someone like her in the world.”

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