Hong Kong International Film Festival 

HONG KONG -- For some, photographer-turned-director Ninagawa Mika's "Sakuran" will be everything that the high-profile "Memoirs of a Geisha" was not.

Although the film lacks the gravitas of Mizoguchi Kenji's classic "The Sisters of Gion," and the exoticized romance of Rob Marshall's "Memoirs," Ninagawa's vision of women with drive, desires and dreams is a dazzling romp.

"Sakuran" is a sure bet for both the specialty and general film festivals. It could see limited release on the art house circuit.

In the Edo-period Yoshiwara district, Kiyoha (Tsuchiya Anna), a young maid, is sold to the Tamagikuya brothel and hates it from day one. She grows up there and turns into a rebellious, contrary, coarse oiran-in-training. (Oiran were an exclusive predecessor to the more renowned geisha that followed.) As a child, Kiyoha learned about the pettiness and vicious rivalries that spring up in the brothels from her former mentor, Shohi (Kanno Miho).

When Shohi leaves the business after finding a respectable patron, the position of supreme oiran falls to Takao (Kimura Yoshino), with whom Kiyoha does not get along. Takao has a struggling artist lover, Mitsu (Nagase Masatoshi, "The Hidden Blade"), who plays a part in Kiyoha's eventual rise to the position.

When Kiyoha isn't navigating the Tamagikuya's politics, she's daydreaming about her own boyfriend, Soujiro (Narimiya Hiroki). Hoping he may be her ticket out, she is crushed at his betrayal of her and throws herself headlong into her work. Her closest friend is brothel bouncer/babysitter Seiji (Ando Masanobu, "Big Bang Love"), who is obviously in love with her, though she doesn't see it.

Kiyoha does win the interest of a powerful patron in the form of a smitten samurai, Kuranosuke (Shiina Kippei). The only question that remains is whether it's too late for Kiyoha, now a hardened, veteran oiran, to achieve any sort of normal loving relationship.

While there are a slew of compelling supporting characters in the story, in reality the movie belongs to Tsuchiya completely. Transplanting her profane, tough-chick act from "Kamikaze Girls" may seem misguided on the surface, but it's actually a brilliant anachronistic performance that makes Kiyoha a full-fledged character. What separates the two is the nuance on display.

Tsuchiya and Ninagawa allow for little moments of vulnerability, despair and youthful pleasure that make "Sakuran" more than just an exercise in style and Kiyoha more than just a cartoon. Kiyoha's tender chat with the elderly Konoya (Ichikawa Sandanji) rings true, as does her tearful decision to give up hoping for love and freedom to Seiji.

Her struggle with whether to accept Kuranosuke's offer of marriage is one of the film's most complex and subtle sequences. The scratchy voice and heavy footsteps are pure modern Tokyo, but it doesn't distract from the character. It goes toward making it.

The gonzo wonderland that the oiran inhabit may be just as historically inaccurate and take just as much artistic license in the details as "Memoirs" did, but Ninagawa's characters are so vivid themselves it's forgivable. Ninagawa revels in uninhibited visuals that are set to a soundtrack mixing swing, J-pop and jazz by Shiina Ringo, one of Japan's most acclaimed and unconventional pop stars.

An Asmik Ace Entertainment Inc. production
Director: Ninagawa Mika
Screenwriter: Tanada Yuki
From the manga by: Anno Moyoca
Producers: Uda Misturu, Fujita Yoshinori
Executive producers: Hayakawa Hiroshi, Yamazaki Koichi, Shiina Yasushi
Director of photography: Ishizaka Takuro
Art director: Iwaki Namiko
Music: Shiina Ringo
Editor: Morishita Hiroaki
Kiyoha: Tsuchiya Anna
Seiji: Ando Masanobu
Takao: Kimura Yoshino
Soujiro: Narimiya Hiroki
Kuranosuke: Shiina Kippei
Missus: Natsuki Mari
Tamagikuya Owner: Ishibashi Renji
Mitsu: Nagase Masatoshi
Sakaguchi: Endo Kenichi
Konoya: Ichikawa Sandanji
Shohi: Kanno Miho
Running time -- 111 minutes
No MPAA rating