Director Peter Greenaway has created a film with plenty to look at, but no sense of where it is going. It’s like watching a pretty car spin wildly out of control.
Vivian Wu stars as Nagiko, a Japanese woman who, as a child, enjoyed having her father write birthday greetings on her face. As a grown woman, this childhood passtime has grown into a full-blown fetish. She gets her kicks from having men write on her skin, but the trouble is, she can’t find a man good enough to match her memories of Daddy.
Upon meeting a British translator, Jerome (Ewan McGregor), her view of the world changes. Rather than write on her, he suggests she write on him. This revelation awakens her artistic talents.
As a child, her mother read to her from a thousand year old diary (called a pillow book) from a lady in waiting also named Nagiko. In it, the ancient Nagiko wrote her observations on life, society and men. The modern Nagiko decides to write her own pillow book of observations, but discovers she can no longer express herself fully on paper: she must write her book on human skin.
The film is shot in an unusual style, utilizing split screens and picture-in-picture to have multiple images running at the same time. While a bit distracting at first, at least the film gives you something to look at during its dreadful final hour.
The film is watchable during it’s first half, when it is a character study analyzing the birth of a fetish and an emerging sexuality. However, soon the film gets bogged down as Nagiko becomes obsessed with revenge on the publisher who wronged the two most important men in her life.
As a mirror to Nagiko’s obsession, the film obsesses on her epic masterpiece, a series of poems in thirteen “books”, which are revealed with painstaking slowness one-by-one. After the first six, the concept has become tiresome. After ten, the whole thing seems to collapse in a sort of self-parody. As a result, the film bogs down, and any interest generated by the first half disapates.
As the central character, Vivian Wu never really draws in the viewer. Instead we remain cold observers, at a distance. We never truly unravel the mysteries of her character except on the most obvious layers.
At least the film is somewhat interesting visually. If it wasn’t, it would be nearly intolerable to sit through.