But I'm feeling spoiled, because those three ladies are my top three favorite Chinese actresses. I have been a fan of Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and enjoyed their performances here immensely. But the big surprise in this film was the closing credits, where I discovered that the incredibly bitchy and dangerous Bad Geisha Hatsumomo was played by the woman who, IMHO, is the world's greatest living film actress, Li Gong. Her performance here is one of her best.
If you don't know her name, go out and rent any of these films, and see what I mean. The more you see, the more amazing she becomes, because she is one of those rare actresses who completely becomes her character, and she can take that character from young girl to old lady seamlessly.
Raise the Red Lantern
The Story of Qiu Ju
Farewell My Concubine (IMHO her best film until now)
The Emperor and the Assassin
I have not read the book, and don't expect to. So nothing I say here reflects on the book or how true the film is to the book.
First of all, the acting is superb. Not just the well known names, but the minor characters and especially the children - the first chunk of the film shows two sisters being sold to geisha houses, and lots of drama about the girls. Suzuka Ohgo as the young Ziyi character is amazing. Ken Watanabe breaks out of his usual muscle man/villain role to play the mild-mannered, understated Chairman, and the chemistry between him and Ziyi is perfect. Youki Kudoh is spot on as Pumpkin, the quintessential post-WWII dance hall girl.
Costuming in this film is a little strange. They mostly do street clothes and the kind of low-cost kimono worn at home. The two or three times when they have the opportunity to show off high-end kimonos, they don't. The characters talk a lot about high class outfits, but we don't get to see many. On the other hand, the period costuming is very good.
The same applies to the sets - they are accurate and well-done, but favor the low end of the budget. Can't blame them, there are dozens of sets, ranging from fishing village to casino.
Makeup was a highlight of the film as well as hair styling. I would have liked to see more step-by-step geisha makeup prep in the film, but there's something to be said for having an expert do the honors, rather than an actress who did not grow up in that culture.
Cinematography is good. There are some lighting-challenged moments, and a lack of wide shots, but otherwise well done. Most important is nothing was distracting me from enjoying the story.
Editing was smooth, with none of the cheap audio tricks of following a quiet scene with a jarringly loud one, which would have been easy to do with this script. I didn't have to turn on subtitles, the actors could be heard easily above the score and background sounds. I am especially grateful for this because the sound director shares my rather rare surname (though I don't think we're related). Video editing was also good, though there were a couple of times early in the film where it was obvious scenes had been cut.
And the story is a tour de force, gripping, barbaric in many places, with elements of Cinderella, Snow White and Bambi Meets Godzilla. A very grim fairy tale. I won't spoil it for those who have not seen the movie/read the book, but I truly liked the ending.