The Pillow Book

1996, Movie, NC-17, 126 mins


This seductive eye candy masquerading as thought-provoking art cinema wears its brain on its sleeve, or -- more correctly -- its bare skin. As a small child, Nagiko Shonagon (Vivian Wu) -- namesake of Sei Shonagon, the author of a 10th-century collection of sensual writings called The Pillow Book -- cherished the birthday ritual devised by her father (Ken Ogata), a writer and skilled calligrapher. He would write a birthday greeting on her upturned face, signing his name to the back of her neck while reciting the story of God's creation of the human race from painted clay. As Nagiko grows older, the act of writing on the body becomes suffused with erotic potential. The scent of paper, she says in voice-over, reminds her of human skin, an apparently quixotic detail that experienced viewers of Peter Greenaway films will know can only have ominous significance. With its attractive cast, beguiling score and relatively straightforward narrative, this dark fable of letters and lust is one of Greenaway's most accessible works, but it retains all the hallmarks of all his earlier films: obsession with ritual, with counting (Nagiko's 13 "books" -- men with text written on their bodies -- drive the story forward), with densely layered and embedded images, with sex in conjunction with grotesque violence and with the transformation of life into literature. And while undeniably exquisite, the entire enterprise carries a faint whiff of orientalism: so much naked Asian flesh (to be fair, Scottish Ewan McGregor bares all as well, but Europeans are few and far between here), so many exotic Japanese and Hong Kong locations, so much inscrutable ceremony, so many mysterious Eastern arts. In so conspicuously intellectual a film, old-fashioned exploitation of the allure of the enigmatic East is a bit troubling. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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