Gong Li is a toughie. The severe planes of her face, the military erectness of her posture, the snarl she puts in her voice, all give an irresistible insolence to China's first international star actress. From the time of her early films like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, which she made for her directing mentor (and then-lover) Zhang Yimou, she has incarnated the kind of woman you wouldn't dare mess with, yet would love to try.
Now she has found a role that fits her like the clingiest cheongsam: the proud, vindictive Hatsumomo, rival to the heroine Nitta Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha, the first Hollywood megamovie to boast Asian actors in all the main roles. Hatsumomo, queen of the 1930s okiya (geisha house) where Sayuri is a budding princess, taunts and sabotages the younger woman at every small step. To add piquancy to the situation, Sayuri is played by Ziyi Zhang, who followed Gong Li as Zhang Yimou's leading lady in the rapturous rural love story The Road Home and the martial-arts hit House of Flying Daggers. No wonder Hatsumomo stares daggers at that little geisha on the rise.
Any actor must find a rapport with the character she plays, however unsympathetic. Gong Li sees Hatsumomo as less villain than victima woman to empathize with, to the point of tears. "She is a rebel," she says, speaking through a translator. "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 she might have had the same kind of upbringing as Sayuri. She might have been beaten. Then she turned into a great geisha. I thought there must be someone like her in the world ..." At this point the pang of Hatsumomo's interior life gnaws at the actress, and she begins to cry. The translator, swept into the mood of the moment, cries too.
It's been ages since the movies have given audiences a good cry. A good cry, not a cheap one; any film can do that, by placing a child in peril, by loading the narrative dice against the hero or heroine, by telling a simple tale of outraged justice, by cutting to a plaintive cocker spaniel. An honorable weepie uses none of these wheedling devices. It earns its tears through the artful depiction of plausible events and honest feelings. One way a modern movie meets these standards is by setting its tale in the past, before the gust of equality blew holes in the age-old sexual hierarchy. Japan in its less progressive days was such a place and time, when a woman's heart, like her back, was made for breaking.
Relishing this setting, director Rob Marshall triumphs in bringing Arthur Golden's 1997 worldwide best seller lusciously to life as a sumptuous love story. The plot spans almost two decades, from 1927 to 1946; but the script, by Robin Swicord (screenwriter of the 1994 film Little Women) and playwright Doug Wright (last year's Broadway hit I Am My Own Wife), never hurries past the telling biographical detail of its four main characters. Nor does the movie's visual splendor ever obscure the furtive, assertive heart beating under the kimono. Marshall, 45, whose first big film, the 2002 musical Chicago, won the Oscar for best picture, here tops that effort, in dramatic breadth and emotional depth.