Greenaway has never hesitated to make his films richly complex, and has always assumed in his audience a knowledge of, and interest in, the world of arts and letters. In this case, 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 awesomely impressive and beautiful. Pic is however, one of his colder efforts, and the dark humor that pervades some of his work is kept below the surface on this occasion.
Pic revolves around the erotic adventures of a young Japanese woman, Nagiko (played as an adult by Vivian Wu). As a child growing up in Kyoto, Nagiko’s birthdays are celebrated in a highly ritualized manner as her father (Ken Ogata) , an impoverished writer and expert calligrapher, writes a sensuous birthday greeting on her face with brush and ink, while her aunt reads passages from the Shonagon classic. At the age of 18, the ritual ceases and the reluctant 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; in addition to sex, she derives pleasures from the texts that are written on her body. None of these lover-calligraphers really satisfies her however, until she meets an Englishman, Jerome (Ewan McGregor), with whom she falls in love. Jerome persuades her that she should write on his body, rather than vice versa, and a period of erotic fulfillment is achieved. Jerome presents his body, with Nagiko’s elaborate writing all over it, to her father’s old publisher, who is delighted and soon becomes Jerome’s lover also. When Nagiko discovers this, her jealousy triggers Jerome’s suicide, and the last part of the film depicts the elaborate way in which Nagiko takes revenge on the publisher.
This exotic tale unfolds vividly in Greenaway’s bold style. As in the past, thedirector doesn’t shrink from erotic scenes, and there’s plenty of nudity in the film, more of it male than female (as various male bodies are displayed covered with Nagiko’s intricate writings).
The director also experiments with the very format of the film frame, altering the size of the image (many scenes are letter-boxed in widescreen format) and imposing a second, third or fourth image (some of them postage-stamp size) onto the main image. This, coupled with the intricate soundtrack, makes for an intensely rich experience, as exciting visually and aurally as was Greenaway’s extraordinary “Prospero’s Books.”
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, and McGregor impressive as the hedonistic Jerome.
Sacha Vierny, the director’s usual collaborator behind the camera, does an exceptional job, both in the intimate scenes and in some striking location work in Hong Kong (repeated shots of a Kowloon street with a huge jet flying low over it are awesome). In every other technical department, the film scores handsomely.
This is decidedly not everyone’s cup of sake, but for Greenaway fans and filmgoers willing to be seduced by a mature and richly decorative slice of Asian culture, “The Pillow Book” will be a treat, albeit at times a demanding one.