Picks and Pans Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

updated 12/19/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Youki Kudoh

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With their training in dance, music and light conversation, geishas occupied a spot somewhere between wife and prostitute in the upper strata of Japanese society. Memoirs of a Geisha, based on Arthur Golden's captivating 1997 novel and competently directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), follows a young girl's journey to geisha glory in pre-World War II Japan. It's ravishing to behold, boasting gorgeous leading ladies, luxurious costumes and exotic sets—but looks only go so far. Geisha fails to grab you while you're watching or stay with you afterward. Maybe this romantic drama is trying to cover too much ground. Only during the middle third, when the heroine (Zhang) is immersed in intense geisha training while fending off sabotage efforts by a jealous rival geisha (Li, gloriously channeling Bette Davis), does the film manage to exert a hint of the book's mesmerizing hold. (PG-13)

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