The film version of ''Memoirs of a Geisha" is very like a geisha itself: a thing of exquisitely refined surfaces beneath which beats an ordinary heart.
Arthur Golden's best-selling novel has been brought to the screen with maximum attention to detail -- you could pass out from the kimonos alone -- and if dazzling set design, cinematography, music, and costumes are enough to convince you of greater art, proceed forthwith and drink deep. As good as it looks, though, ''Memoirs" remains faux-Oriental chic, a Hollywoodized concoction that seems almost calculated to offend Asian audiences and stateside purists. More to the point, its commercial compromises cripple it as a movie.
But, really, what's to compromise? Golden's novel is a terrific read that presumes to give an insider's view of World War II-era geisha culture, but it's written by an outsider -- an American, a man, a guy from Brookline -- who has essentially laid an expertly researched Japanese screen atop an old-fashioned Gothic romance. If the book is much more than a literary trick, it ain't exactly ''The Tale of Genji."
Nor is Rob Marshall (''Chicago") Kenji Mizoguchi, the Japanese director whose classic mid-century films about ''the floating world" are the real deal. Marshall knows his way around a lavish production, though. Both book and film spin the story of Chiyo (played initially by Suzuka Ohgo), a poor fisherman's daughter who's sold off in the opening scenes and carted like chattel to Kyoto, where she's apprenticed to a geisha house in the Gion entertainment district. The queen of this particular okiya, or geisha house, is Hatsumomo (Gong Li), an imperiously vicious piece of work who takes one look at Chiyo's blue eyes and sees a future rival.
The early scenes of ''Memoirs" focus on the Dickensian cruelty of Chiyo's life -- her attempted escapes, Hatsumomo's sadistic games -- graced only by the girl's encounter with the Chairman (Ken Watanabe, ''The Last Samurai"), a kindly businessman she meets at a low point. Soon Chiyo morphs into adolescence and on comes Ziyi Zhang (''2046," ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), whose beauty can buckle the knees of a delivery boy at 50 paces.
And in sweeps Michelle Yeoh as Mameha, kindhearted queen bee of the Gion and archenemy of Hatsumomo. Mameha takes Chiyo on as apprentice and gives her the geisha name of Sayuri, but the older woman has a larger game in mind. Yeoh becomes the chief glory of ''Memoirs" -- her Mameha is a master strategist with steel nerves hidden under silk and graciousness -- and Sayuri blossoms under her tutelage.
It's important to note, for those who haven't read the book or are ignorant of the culture, that geisha were hardly glorified prostitutes. Rather, they were social entertainers representing a rarefied ideal of Japanese femininity, ornaments as painstakingly constructed as a painted fan. ''Memoirs" pays tribute to the geisha obsession with surfaces -- to the opulence that hints at the eros beneath -- while fudging the details to appeal to Western audiences. The movie is a riot of visual sensuousness; it's a musical in color and movement and, in one rather forced sequence, of musical performance itself.
At the same time, the virginity of young apprentices was sold to the highest bidder, and the most successful geisha were those who became mistresses of powerful men. ''Memoirs" accepts this state of affairs without commentary. Sayuri pines after the Chairman like Jane Eyre after Rochester, while alternately fighting off and acquiescing to the attentions of the Chairman's scarred business partner Nobu (Koji Yakusho), a creepy doctor (Randall Duk Kim), and Mamaha's own patron, The Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).
A little of this retro romantic martyrdom goes a long way given the film's larger problems. There has been controversy over the casting of Chinese and Korean actors in leading roles, but if objections are understandable, so is the producer's desire to sell an already Westernized project to American audiences with known stars. The hard fact is that, yes, various Asian nationalities do look alike to US multiplex audiences.
More ruinous is the decision to shoot ''Memoirs" in English. God forbid American moviegoers should be forced to read subtitles, but the result is that Zhang, Yeoh, Gong, and Watanabe can't act in their native languages and have to fall back on pidgin dialogue delivered in often-incomprehensible accents. They're stellar players robbed of half their tools, like a marathon runner with one leg strapped back or a landscape painter wearing an eye patch.
This is where ''Memoirs" falls short -- again, as a movie -- and where it helplessly plays into cliches of the ''mystical orient" that the book nimbly sidesteps. I'd say go find a video of Mizoguchi's 1953 ''A Geisha" if you want a more genuine look at the subject, but those who will respond to this movie aren't interested in the truth. They want the gorgeous lie. If only ''Memoirs" lied better.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.