Memoirs of a Geisha is so, so pretty. The cinematography by Dion Beebe is just about as good as I've seen all year, not because it is radical but because it is so winningly conservative: all soft light across faces, silhouettes, lovely color combinations (bright pink cherry blossoms against delicate green bushes in one scene...heavenly). There's a breathtaking "building on fire" scene where the divine Gong Li is bathed in the gorgeous flames of a most photogenic Hell.

Attention also must also be given to John Myhre's production design, all full of tiny little wonderful details and shapes and colors. It's the very model of what we in the West have come to expect from films set in the pre-industrial East: all shoji screens and sliding doors, elegant and exotic and somehow both decadent and minimalist.

The cast is beautiful as well. The aforementioned Gong is perhaps the most attractive woman in cinema right now, and she's never looked lovelier. Hardly less so is Zhang Ziyi (quite the 2046 reunion going on) as Sayuri, the geisha of the title. And, into her forties, Michelle Yeoh remains quite gorgeous.

If it doesn't seem like I care about the story, well, director Rob Marshall clearly doesn't either. Following right up in the tracks of his earlier Chicago, he has created a work of theatrical flash and style, with all of the theme and story surgically removed. It doesn't work here at all, not even to the tiny degree it worked in the earlier film, because at least that was a musical. This is a film that aches to be An Epic Masterwork in the David Lean mold (Marshall has admitted as much), and it misfires terribly.

The BIG ISSUE about this film prior to its release, and a complete non-starter as far as I care, was "however can Chinese actors play Japanese characters?" The same way Anthony Quinn could play an Arab and Natalie Wood could play a Puerto Rican. They were cast because they're big stars, and they're attractive. The problem isn't that they're Chinese. It's that they're native speakers of Chinese. Or rather, that they're not native, or indeed fluent, speakers of English.

It's embarrassing, almost, to say it, but I was really taken out of the film by the obvious phonetically-learned lines, mostly delivered in a sort of Charlie Chan-accented English that, in the hands of a white person, would be subject to the most appropriate scorn and mockery. I understand that this is what happens when one speaks a language one does not know (certainly, I don't pretend that I could act in a Chinese film), but surely there was a point when it would have been smarter and fairer just to shoot the film in Japanese?

Not that Rob Marshall cares. This, to him, is not the story about a young girl who grows up and learns to be a geisha, and then realizes her life is boxed in. This is the story about pretty things happening.

It seems absurd even to comment on why the pace of the story is wonked out (WWII happens "at" this film, more than happens "in" it), or whine that the film doesn't grapple with the implications of what amounts to a culture of ritualized prostitution. This film was not made by a director who gives a damn about the characters or their psychology, or even their value as thematic placeholders, and it shows.

Damn, it's easy on the eyes, though.