The Pillow Book
- Vivian Wu as Nagiko
- Ewan McGregor as Jerome
- Yoshi Oida as The Publisher
A highly unusual movie that adheres to the genre of film known as not for everyone, The Pillow Book is still a visually arresting and intoxicating experience; covering dark eroticism, obsession and revenge into an intriguing film that is hard to forget once you’ve viewed it.
As a young girl, Nagiko delighted in calligraphy as her father every year on her birthday, wrote characters on her face, while her mother read aloud from The Pillow Book. The eponymous book concerns a lady in waiting’s observations, primarily on the nature of love and desire. This ritual left a huge impact on Nagiko who grows up to be a beautiful young woman with a passion for literature and scripture. Yet, Nagiko also remembers her father being blackmailed and degraded by a publisher that she can’t forget. This is more prominent because she is forced to marry his boorish son, who refuses her love of writing and mocks her. Fleeing from him, Nagiko relocates to Hong Kong, where she encounters some success as a fashion model. Yet while she still derives joy from calligraphy, as an adult she now finds it to be sexually stimulating too. The problem is she can’t find a lover who can indulge her unusual passions and connect with her. That is until she comes across British translator Jerome. She soon begins a relationship with him in which they often make love and write on each other’s bodies, even though Nagiko knows that Jerome is bisexual and is intimate with a publisher. Nagiko continues to write and sends her work to a publisher, who rejects it. she is shocked to discover it is the same publisher who ruined her father and is the man in the relationship with Jerome. Yet Jerome sees this as an opportunity to help Nagiko; he asks her to use his body like pages and send him to the publisher so he can see the work and because he likes Jerome, reconsider refusing the work Nagiko sent him. But Jerome’s refusal to break off his relationship with the publisher spells dire and tragic consequences for all as Nagiko feels eventually betrayed.
Now as I mentioned earlier, The Pillow Book is a polarizing movie, much like a lot of the movies directed by Peter Greenaway. Depending on your viewpoint, you can see it as overly arty and pretentious or strikingly adult and challenging. I feel I fall into the latter category. I must give props to Peter Greenaway for his directing prowess, that lets his imagination run wild and employ arresting visual techniques. I will try to list the many visual tricks he employs that really make the movie an experience. There is switches between black and white and colour, overlapping images combining past and present and words that float across the screen. The way these nifty tricks are used is phenomenal and the melding of all of them imprints itself on the mind from the start to the finish. Greenaway is a filmmaker who really understands the concept of cinema as art and The Pillow Book is a very good example of this. Subtlety isn’t his strong suit, but his overblown style compensates for that and the fact that the characters often take a back stand to the imagery. Sexuality and pleasures of the flesh play an important part in the film and this may have a reason for people either liking it or not. There is nudity and sex to be seen, with a lot of nudity from both sexes for a change. But anyone expecting it to be erotic and steamy will be surprised at the unusual nature of it and the practices shown. The scattershot soundtrack combines songs of different languages and genres to a bizarre yet very intriguing effect. It’s safe to say that this film will really divide opinions and while I did find there were some flaws to be found, I was really immersed in the film for the most part.
While the characters present within The Pillow Book often play second fiddle to the style, the actors in the parts are all very credible it must be said. Vivian Wu portrays the very extreme emotions and pleasures of Nagiko without resorting to melodrama. In turn, the character becomes a lot of things and Wu handles them all very capably. Her well-spoken voice is heard through narration which adds another layer of dimension to the character of Nagiko. Ewan McGregor is suitably great as the insincere Jerome, imbuing him with a charm and tragedy yet an inability to compromise that provides the film with drama. In the role of the odious publisher who Nagiko plots revenge against, Yoshi Oida is very good at putting forth his careless nature and disregard for others.
Dark, painterly and experimental to say the least, The Pillow Book will either have you scratching your head or in total awe. Whichever way you see it, one can’t deny the impression it makes.