Color/ B&W, 1996, 123m.
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Starring Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida, Ken Ogata, Hideko Yoshida, Judy Ongg
Park Circus (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Sony (US R1 NTSC) / DD2.0


A particularly strange fetish develops during childhood in Nagiko (The Joy Luck Club's Wu), whose favorite ritual is having calligraphy drawn on her face by her father on the event of each of her birthdays. After witnessing a sexually traumatic event involving her father and his male publisher, she grows up to find herself completely absorbed in a desire to have calligraphy drawn upon her body. She takes a young Scottish man, Jerome (a pre-Star Wars McGregor), as her lover but is dismayed to find his penmanship lacking. Instead she finds herself becoming "the pen as well as the paper," drawing pleasure from inking upon willing flesh. She sends Jerome's enscribed body to her father's publisher, and several erotic and grisly complications ensue.

After a brief tenure as an arthouse golden boy thanks to the sumptuous visuals feasts of The Cook, the Thief, Her Wife and Her Lover and Prospero's Books, British director Peter Greenaway began to stumble in the public and critical eye. After a falling out with composer Michael Nyman (an unfortunate end to one of the most fruitful modern cinematic relationships in European cinema), Greenaway was forced to adapt his all-song morality tale, The Baby of Macon, into a straight play within a play format that left many viewers completely baffled. Regrouping in the aftermath, Greenaway's follow up film, The Pillow Book, took almost three years to hit American shores after its completion, but that's still better than most of his subsequent work. This offering finds Greenaway still flinging viewers into a stunning mixture of visual technology, classical aesthetic style, plentiful artistic nudity, and jarring moments of graphic violence.

Deriving his inspiration from Sei Shonagon's literary "pillow book," Greenaway has fashioned an elusive series of vignettes combining text, flesh, and eroticism into an uneasy but ultimately transcendant whole. Like much of his television work, The Pillow Book was created with digital Japanese technology and involves layer upon layer of images interacing in various aspect ratios (ranging from anamorphic Cinemascope to 1.33:1), which resulted in almost none of its incarnations being wholly satisfying. In theaters it was usually exhibited around 1.85:1, which lopped significant information off the top and bottom of many shots and even wiped out some of the lower subtitles in a few scenes. Things seemed to fare a bit better at first glance with its DVD editions, which were essentially open matte at 1.33:1; the American release from Sony explains on the back, "while filmed in multi-aspect ratios, has been re-formatted to fit your TV." This is a marked contrast to Greenaway's other digital Paintbox epic, Prospero's Books, which was shot hard-matted at 1.66:1 and completely collapsed under Fox's pan and scan video transfer. The Dolby Surround tracks for Pillow Book are also very effective and show off the eclectic soundtrack (ranging from Buddhist chants to techno) with plenty of directional presence. The DVD also includes the fairly explicit U.S. theatrical trailer.

When Park Circus in the UK announced a Region B Blu-Ray of the title, anyone who had seen it had to wonder exactly what the heck it was going to look like. The results probably won't blow away newcomers expecting a slick, razor-sharp experience like your average Criterion title, but that's largely due to the conditions of the film's creation. Some shots look very crisp and vivid, in fact, while others (especially the multi-layered ones) can go soft on occasion. What's most surprising is the aspect ratio situation, which is handled here about as well as it could be without a wholesale reconfiguration of the entire feature from the original raw footage. The transfer features pillarboxing on the sides to maintain the 1.33:1 aspect ratio when intended, while the narrower shifts are smaller within the frame; interestingly, this reveals that the previous transfer actually tampered drastically with many of the 2.35:1 shots, which are far more prevalent than most viewers might have imagined and are shown here at their full width. (Click on the third frame grab here for an idea.) The fact that there's actually a fresh, 1080p HD transfer of this film on the market is something of a cause for celebration, as it handily beats the comparatively fuzzy and murky-looking standard def counterpart in every respect. The 2.0 lossless stereo track is solid as well, with good separation that makes the most of the wildly eclectic soundtrack. As with the DVD, the only substantial extra here is the (SD, non-anamorphic) trailer, though you do get a small image gallery, too. Be warned that this is absolutely not a film for all tastes, but if the description sounds intriguing, it's certainly worth exploring.

Reviewed on 5/27/11

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