After long years of development and some tricky Hollywood deal-making, a movie version of the best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha is headed into production. The book became a sensation around the world when it was first published in 1997. The story chronicles a young girl's rise from poverty in a Japanese fishing village to life in high society. The lead role of Sayuri will go to Zhang Ziyi, the Chinese actress who starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and appeared in the comedy Rush Hour 2, her publicist said Thursday. For those unfamiliar with the story, a geisha is a Japanese woman schooled in the arts of dance, singing, and conversation expressly so that she may become a companion for wealthy men. Zhang, 25, has been working to perfect her English for several years and now speaks the language with little difficulty. "This is the first time that I will play the lead in an English-language movie. It will be a big challenge, but the studios, producers, and director have shown great confidence in me. I will continue to do my utmost to make this the best role I've ever played," she told the Associated Press. Ken Watanabe, a recent Oscar nominee for The Last Samurai, will portray the Chairman, a high-powered executive with whom the young geisha, Sayuri, falls in love. Another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon costar, Malaysian-born Michelle Yeoh, has signed to portray Mameha, the elegant and experienced geisha who becomes Sayuri's mentor.
Geisha will be directed by Rob Marshall, the out Oscar-nominated director of Chicago. Marshall has long wanted to make this his next project, but was locked into a contract with Miramax Films, while Columbia Pictures and DreamWorks SKG held the rights to Geisha. After lengthy negotiations that threatened to block his participation, a deal was eventually reached between the studios. "We could not be more excited about the extraordinary cast that we have in place for Memoirs of a Geisha," said Marshall, a Pittsburgh native who is also a Tony-winning Broadway director and choreographer. "We are adapting a beloved piece of literature that has become a worldwide sensation, which made it important to me to assemble a cast with a prestigious international profile." For many years, director Steven Spielberg was interested in directing the film. He will now serve as a producer on Marshall's movie. "From the time I first read Arthur Golden's novel I wanted to see this as a film," Spielberg said. "It's a uniquely compelling story rich with characters who take you into a world you have never experienced before." Production is set to begin in the fall; a release date has not yet been specified. (AP)