''It's been the challenge of a lifetime,'' says Rob Marshall, who follows up his Oscar-nominated big-screen directing debut, Chicago, with the equally ambitious, ''very faithful'' $70 million-plus adaptation of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel. Produced by Steven Spielberg (who, once upon a time, was attached to direct), and shot in California and Japan over five months with a pan-Asian cast, the movie tells the grit-to-glam tale of Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), a poor country girl who, with the help of a mentor (Michelle Yeoh), becomes the world's most famous geisha.
''I felt so honored to get this role,'' says Zhang, a fan of the book. Aside from acting in English, the biggest hurdle for the Beijing-born actress was learning to dance in 12-inch platform shoes. ''First time I saw them, I told the choreographer, 'No, you're kidding!''' she giggles. ''Five hours a day, for several weeks I learned that dance. It was really difficult I hope it's still in the movie!'' Your blisters and bruises were not in vain, Ziyi: The scene remains.