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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 January 2006, 02:12 GMT
Geisha film reveals 'hidden culture'
Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li (far right) in Memoirs of a Geisha
Memoirs of a Geisha was filmed on sets on a Californian ranch
Based on a US best-selling novel about a Japanese cultural phenomenon, and starring Chinese actors, the film Memoirs of a Geisha has six Oscar nominations.

The second film from American director Rob Marshall, best known for his Oscar-winning debut Chicago, focuses on the "hidden culture" of the geisha.

Geisha are professional female companions, schooled in music, dance and conversation, whose services remain in demand, even today, among the wealthiest men in Japan.

"It was the kind of book you knew immediately would make an incredible movie because it has all those visual elements - a place, a time, a unique culture and mysterious characters," says former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh, who plays the famous geisha Mameha.

Set in Kyoto in the 1930s, Arthur Golden's 1997 novel tells the story of Sayuri, a young girl sold to a geisha household as a child, who becomes one of the most celebrated geishas of her generation.

The book sold four million copies in English and was translated into 32 languages.

Ziyi Zhang, Rob Marshall and Ken Watanabe (far right)
Rob Marshall was with Ziyi Zhang and Ken Watanabe at the premiere

"The movie is very highly anticipated, particularly for us as Asians," says 43-year-old Yeoh.

"This is a very rare opportunity, to have a movie of such scope and an entire cast of Asians given the opportunity to show what we can do."

Even before the film premiered in Tokyo in December, it was the focus of criticism for casting Chinese actresses in the key geisha roles.

"The film is Rob's vision and celebration of a culture," says Yeoh, referring to director Marshall.

"When all the cast got together for the first time, it was a pan-Asian gathering, and Rob said 'you are all here because I believe in you' - as an actor, that is all you need to know."

The training was affectionately known as the seven rooms of torture
Michelle Yeoh

"In Asia, we constantly play Koreans, Malay, Chinese. We do not question that, as you do not question an Englishman playing an American or a German."

Director Marshall, 45, said: "I have a very simple philosophy, which is that you cast the best person for the role.

"When I cast Queen Latifah in Chicago, people pointed out that in 1920s Chicago there would be no such thing as an African-American matron working in a jail, but for me she embodied the role.

"It is kind of a tradition in film-making, the tradition that sees an Egyptian Omar Sharif cast as a Russian Doctor Zhivago, and a Texan Renee Zellweger cast as the British Bridget Jones. They are actors, acting."

Memoirs of a Geisha
Geisha are traditionally schooled in the art of music and dance

"There was no question in my mind at all regarding this cast. These are the best actors in the world for these roles."

While geishas traditionally train for five years, the actresses took a crash course in everything from tea ceremonies to walking in a kimono, to dancing in platform clogs.

"The training was affectionately known as the seven rooms of torture," says Yeoh, who is well known for performing her own stunts in martial arts movies.

"Learning how to walk in a kimono was an art form in itself - if you didn't learn to do it properly it was like dragging a dead cat across the floor! We had to walk with a piece of paper between your knees and a tea tray balanced on your head.

'No trophy wife'

"It was an enriching experience, but it was daunting - in six weeks we had to do something that geisha spend their entire life perfecting."

Marshall said: "It's very hard to equate what a geisha is to a Western audience, because we have nothing that is similar.

"Somebody suggested a geisha was like a trophy wife - but it's nothing like that. Geishas are artists."

For Ziyi Zhang, the challenge was even greater since Sayuri marked her first English-language role.

Ziyi Zhang and Ken Watanabe in Memoirs of a Geisha
Ken Watanabe plays the Chairman, with whom Sayuri falls in love

In accepting a role that was coveted by actresses throughout Japan, the 26-year-old House of Flying Daggers star felt a "tremendous pressure" to live up to expectations.

"For me this is an international movie, it's not a Japanese movie," says the actress, who is nominated for a Golden Globe.

"No matter what our cultural backgrounds, we all had to learn how to become a geisha, to train hard."

Zhang maintains the challenge was greater than the martial arts roles for which she became famous, an opinion echoed by co-star Yeoh.

"Action films are very physical, you can project your energy; being a geisha is all about containing those emotions.

"The geisha denies love. They do not love, do not marry, do not have children. As a human being, how do you deny love and live with that every day?"

Watch clips from the film


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