Bodies of Work

The Pillow Book

Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

Temptress Moon

Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

LET'S GIVE THAT critical finger-wagger Michael Medved some credit: Movies are sinful. They provide us incredible intimacy with strangers, magnified beyond the bounds of decency. They explore imagined places, surfaces, and ideas we might not otherwise consider. And that's why we love them, of course.

Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book leads the viewer onto some of these unrighteous paths, beginning with a provocative observation: Sei Shonagon, author of the 10-centuries-old title volume, explains that she finds two things in life dependable--"the delights of the flesh and the delights of the text." Nagiko (Vivian Wu), otherwise not a literary woman, finds this philosophy inspirational and creates a new merger: text on flesh. Raised the daughter of a calligrapher who annually painted a poem on her face as a birthday tribute, she has long been occupied by the glory (and, eventually, the sexual thrill) of words on her skin.

With great assurance of his originality, Greenaway develops Nagiko as a kind of victim victorious: a reader who finally dares to write. She's also a frank but earnest exhibitionist who explores the metaphor of "publishing" and "reading" both the self and the body. At first a low-paid cook and clerk, she gains fame as a model and then applies the physical swagger of that career to everything else in her life. Almost anyone is welcome to write on her, and especially on her birthdays. But when she finally connects with Jerome the translator (Ewan McGregor), she switches from passive to aggressive. A publisher (Yoshi Oida) has rejected her initial submission, so she sends her rewrite painted on the body of Jerome, his lover.

As ironic metaphors go, the book made out of a body is not nearly so blatant as the meal made out of a man in Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover--but if you're curious about what a flattened face looks like you'll be satisfied. I was not so much turned off as disappointed, because in many respects Greenaway is one of moviedom's great voluptuaries. He superimposes images atop each other (as in CD-ROMs or TV news); he incorporates text and image, color and monochrome, and light and shadow like a genuine artisan. There's a single shot of Nagiko that blends a gold leaf, her linen dress, her tawny skin, and her inky-black hair in a way that's going to haunt me for a long while.

On the other hand, Greenaway is an aloof and archly whimsical listmaker who perversely enjoys the fussy promise of order. As The Pillow Book builds to its revenge-based conclusion, it's a shame to see him retreat from the emotional dance of surrender-and-control to tableaux and titles; his extra screens begin to seem more like distractions than seductions. And his transgressions become curiously less threatening, as if he loves the body of film but would rather dress it than violate it.

No such problem with Temptress Moon's director Chen Kaige, another indulgent hedonist when it comes to lighting, color, and camera movement. His take on passion and desire suffers no obstacles from witty metaphors; he gets to the point. In Farewell My Concubine, Chen took the oft-used prop of backstage theater life and not only built a story out of it, but milked the setting for all its costumed, cosmeticized potential. While there's no theatrical metaphor in Temptress Moon, social disruption appears again on the margins of a passion-based plot. There's also the haze of opium, which occasionally excuses the digressive storytelling.

As it begins, an orphaned teen arrives at the family compound where his sister's husband is an expected heir. The sensitive boy has been promised the chance to keep studying, but he's more like an unpaid slave forced to fill his brother-in-law's opium pipes. He plays some with the brother-in-law's young sister and a more distant cousin, but slavery is the dominant burden--and he escapes it. Later, as an adult, Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung) is no scholar but a callous gigolo at the heart of a blackmail ring.

As in other melodramas, the non-lovable lover is called back to the family to resume narrative tension. Politics and worldly corruption have altered the outside world, but within the family things are business as usual--except that the old playmates, especially Ruyi (Gong Li), are in power. And where will Zhongliang fit in? And why has he come back in the first place? If you followed the prime-time soaps of the early '80s you can guess where this story is headed: seduction, recombination, betrayal, corruption, etc.

At least it follows this familiar path with extreme style. Fabrics and faces dance past the camera with uninhibited energy; scenes dissipate into provocative hints of where they might have ended. I especially liked the repeated use of a skewed closeup on several characters, which is often made even more dreamy by blurred focus. Compared to Greenaway, Chen and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (a veteran of Wong Kar-Wai's films) have no weighty theme to explore, but they do know the naughty pleasures of magic, as well as some other things even more luxurious and decadent--and distinctly cinematic. Still, for all their dazzle, their seduction breaks no codes and leaves no lasting impression.

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