Release date: Dec. 9
U.S. distrib: Sony
Oscar alumni: Douglas Wick (picture, “Gladiator”), Steven Spielberg (picture, “Schindler’s List’; director, “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan”), Colleen Atwood (costume design, “Chicago”), John Williams (composer, “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” “Schindler’s List”), John Myhre (production designer, “Chicago”), Pietro Scalia (editor, “JFK,” “Black Hawk Down”)
An enclave of ultra-exclusivity and exoticism circa pre-WWII Japan provides the unmistakable allure of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” based on Arthur Golden’s acclaimed 1997 novel, which the New Yorker called “a story with the social vibrancy and narrative sweep of a much-loved 19th-century bildungsroman.” This is the kind of high-toned polish that traditional movie audiences, as well as Academy members, crave: a saga that takes the viewer to a long-vanished time and place, pitting old-world values against the rapidly changing socio-political canvas of 20th-century Japan.
Sony Pictures Entertainment appears to have spared no expense in delivering this epic to the bigscreen. Originally to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who spent years developing the story, “Memoirs” was taken over by Rob Marshall, a theater director-turned-bigscreen virtuoso who parlayed his feature helming debut, “Chicago,” into a best picture winner, with an Oscar nomination and a DGA award for himself in the process.
The cast represents a who’s who of pan-Asian cinema, from the red-hot Ziyi Zhang (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “House of Flying Daggers”) in the title role to key players Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li and Ken Watanabe (“The Last Samurai”).
As Sayuri, the geisha of the film’s title, Zhang tackles her most demanding role yet, ranging from docile — her virginity is sold to the highest bidder — to steely determination to the complex panoply of emotions associated with a love that cannot be sanctioned or requited. As her older rival, Li plays the kind of mercurial diva that is sure to garner her rapturous attention from Westerners not familiar with her work with Zhang Yimou.
Despite his short film resume, Marshall has a proven track record with actors (the Academy nominated four thesps from “Chicago”) and a theatrical flair in his staging that transformed him into an A-list filmmaker overnight. And he has surrounded himself with a dream team crew: d.p. Dione Beebe, production designer John Myhre and costume designer Colleen Atwood — all “Chicago” alums who were either Oscar nominees or winners for their pains.
The sumptuousness and detail of the visuals speaks volumes about the importance of lighting, design and composition in the makeup of a best picture nominee. And Spielberg’s house composer, John Williams — given to lush, orchestral maneuvers — has so many Oscar nominations (43) and wins (five) that he’s in a class all his own.
Robin Swicord, who co-wrote the adaptation with Doug Wright, proved with 1994’s “Little Women” that she can distill a period classic with contemporary immediacy.