"The Pillow Book"
Various play dates (depending on city), Summer 1997
I have seen the future of movies, and it is picture- in- picture.
You know, like a fancy TV where you can watch a second channel in the corner of the screen. The effect will be used for flashbacks and to show parallel plot lines at once. Action movies will use it to show explosion from several angles at the same time.
And hardly anyone will remember that Peter Greenaway, the most ambitious visual auteur in modern film, did it first in "Prospero's Books" and even more effectively in "The Pillow Book," an outstanding visual and cerebral feast traveling art house theaters throughout the summer.
A much less assaulting alternative to MTV-style editing, Greenaway (best known for "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover") uses picture-in-picture images throughout his new film -- the absorbing story of Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a beautiful, young Japanese writer living Hong Kong, who has a fetish for writing on flesh.
"The Pillow Book" requires a turbo-charged right brain to take in its multiple layers of symbolism, time and emotion, but the pay-off is big -- this is the most beautiful and complex film so far this year.
The first part of the story largely concerns her quest for "the perfect calligrapher/lover." As a writer herself, she often covers her lovers with poems and allusions in Japanese and Chinese. She immediately kicks out of bed anyone without an artisan's hand and something interesting to write on her body.
She developed her unusual concupiscence in childhood when her father would gingerly jot a traditional Japanese creationism myth on her face every birthday. When she meets Jerome (Ewan McGregor from "Trainspotting") and he learns to paint her body to her specifications, Greenaway uses the picture-in-picture to show a flashback to an early birthday, Jerome's brush strokes mirroring those of her father.
While collectively it's only used for maybe 15 minutes of the picture, Greenaway also employs the smaller image as a transition from scene to scene and to parallel Nagiko's life to that of a young woman in ancient Japan who wrote the pillow book that inspires our heroine's literary ambitions.
Even with Greenaway's focus on visual fabric, his characters are intricate and the performances richly layered. Wu gives Nagiko an ethereal quality -- she is brilliant and sensual. Jerome is the most complex person in her life, which is why she is patient with his initially clumsy penmanship. His life is precariously balanced between his impassioned affair with Nagiko and his purely physical trysts with a male book editor.
The second half of the film focuses mainly on Nagiko's determined revenge against this editor, who is the same man who years before betrayed her father. When she discovers this, she sets out to drive him mad -- in part by submitting to him profoundly eloquent manuscripts using Jerome and other men as her medium.
Aside from being about 20 minutes too long (but I haven't a clue what he could have cut) and having the Peter Greenaway Obligatory Gross-Out Scene (painted flesh being cut from a dead body), "The Pillow Book" is a visually astounding, intellectually engrossing and emotionally fascinating film that celebrates, as said so aptly in the movie itself "the delights of the flesh and the delights of literature."