Iconoclastic British helmer Peter Greenaway’s fascination with the most arcane reaches of the world’s art and literature is on full display in the dense yet enormously impressive The Pillow Book, uniquely bold and arresting depiction of exotic erotica, with inventive visual design and slow but inexorably logical plot development.
His response to 10th-century Japanese writer Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, a compendium of lists, reminiscences, literary quotes and amorous adventures, is at first daunting but ultimately awesome and beautiful.
Pic revolves around the erotic adventures of a young Japanese woman, Nagiko (played as an adult by Vivian Wu). Nagiko’s birthdays are celebrated in a highly ritualized manner as her father (Ken Ogata), an impoverished writer and expert calligrapher, writes a sensuous brithday greeting on her face with brush and ink while her aunt reads passages from the Shonagon classic.
At the age of 18, Nagiko is persuaded to marry the nephew of her father’s gay publisher. The frustrated young woman becomes obsessed with following in the footsteps of Shonagon, and when her husband burns her diaries, she leaves him and flees to Hong Kong. There she becomes a successful fashion model and begins searching out a series of lovers who are also calligraphers. None really satisfies her, however, until she meets an Englishman, Jerome (Ewan McGregor), with whom she falls in love.
The actors lend themselves generously to the director’s heady vision, and bravely take part in some pretty explicit sequences. Wu is lovely as the intrepid heroine, McGregor impressive as the hedonistic Jerome.