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Sleeping beauty Absent appearances, there's not much to see in 'Geisha'

Beauty is downright relentless in "Memoirs of a Geisha." It's everywhere.

The film was beautifully shot and put together. John Williams' music is eventless but gorgeous (featuring Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, no less) and the women -- oh, the women. The actresses playing Japanese geishas are Chinese actresses who happen to be three of the most exquisite-looking (and best) actresses in all of world cinema: Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and, especially, the magnificent Gong Li.

"It's not flesh we're selling here," says the geisha wise woman, which might carry a lot more weight if the women cast in the movie weren't themselves examples of fleshly triumph. What she means, of course, is that traditional geishas, we're told, are not prostitutes but rather "living works of art" -- dancers, beauties, conversationalists, boosters of the male ego so adept that large sums of money are paid for their company (and, inevitably, their defloration).

Courtesans, give or take an act or two.

The movie is based on the best seller by Arthur Golden. It's an old-fashioned tale about a poor abused country girl who overcomes envy and hatred and becomes the Cinderella of Japanese geishas and, when the times require after World War II, helps save her defeated country's soul by bringing back the beauty and mystery of the old ways.

Whew.

It is not-so-ancient American movie wisdom that the worse a movie is, the more gender specific it is -- so only movies with hopeless flaws turn out to be "guy movies" or "chick flicks." The best movies always transcend gender specificity.

So, no equivocation here: "Memoirs of a Geisha" is a gorgeous "chick flick." Because it is set in 20th century Japan at the end of an ancient gender tradition it is, I suppose, a formal and genteel way of conveying the supremely cynical Western notion that all marriage is a kind of prostitution and all "femininity" a kind of flesh-peddling and performance art.

Rob Marshall is the fellow who made "Chicago," and a kind of nauseating, self-righteous cynicism is his stock-in-trade.

What we're watching here -- forever, it seems -- is women, under duress from each other, turning themselves into "works of art" and, thereby, saving a national soul when, after World War II, it seems to be damned and doomed besides. Once those slob Americans from Kansas get a blast of the old geisha ways, civilization will continue and they'll be ready to do serious business with a burgeoning, post-War Japanese business class.

Yessir. How mysterious. And interesting. And blah-blah-blah.

It will, no doubt, be all of that for some. For me, it was a big, unremittingly gorgeous bore. (Even the emotionally satisfying ending is boring in its way.)

But oh the Chinese actresses -- Zhang, Yeoh and Li. They are, literally, transcendent -- i.e., they transcend, in every scene they're in, the self-righteous kitsch entrapping them (which truly cynical critics are calling a kind of suburban "Showgirls" or "Mean Girls").

Without a fast-forward button, this one is a bit of a trial.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

Review: 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li and Ken Watanabe

DIRECTOR: Rob Marshall

RUNNING TIME: 144 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for violence, carnal suggestiveness

THE LOWDOWN: Young girl from the provinces becomes a geisha and helps heal her country after World War II.

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