Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon is like a big, old-fashioned Hollywood movie, the kind they don’t make anymore because their archive resides in our collective memory. Even its subjects—decadent ’20s Shanghai and the crumbling, opium-dazed Chinese aristocracy—are gorgeous and unreal.

The moon is the celestial body overseeing the happenings of the Pang clan. When the patriarch dies, the clan-keepers find that his oldest son, Zhengda, is unequipped to succeed him, years of opium use having made him a gray-faced, drooling zombie. Therefore, lovely, demure Ruyi is slated to rule, but her power is limited, as she too is an addict (old man Pang initiated his children into the drug’s delights when they were youngsters) and, what’s more restricting, a woman. With the help of her clumsy, devoted cousin, Duanwu (Kevin Lin), Ruyi tries to institute radical changes—she starts by dismissing all the concubines.

Paralleling Ruyi’s story is that of Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung), who as a child is inveigled into the Pang home by his older sister, Zhengda’s wife, ostensibly to study. Once there, he is nothing more than a servant, asked to prepare Zhengda’s opium pipes and finally, one dark night, asked most insistently to “kiss” his sister. Under a cloud (that obscures the exact scandal, although certainly incestuous in nature), Zhongliang leaves the Pang home suddenly, embarking, luggageless, for Shanghai. As a graceful young man, he seduces rich women and then, with the help of his mob cohorts, blackmails them. Eventually he is asked to take down a big score: Go to the Pang home, romance the beautiful head of household, and bring her back to Shanghai to be fleeced.

In spite of the script’s promise of debauched elegance—the Shanghai wives in their slinky dresses, the rapacious click of mah-jongg tiles, the dreamy opium smoke—Chen’s directorial style is more dated than retro. He’s an aficionado of the single tear; every woman onscreen lets one of these pearllike beauties roll while standing unflinchingly. The stylized action of the Shanghai gambling dens and gangster hideouts are overstuffed and the action melodramatic. Often either the dialogue or the translation is confusing or silly—when these characters’ simple motives are obscured, their psychologies are virtually destroyed.

There are some lovely touches—Gong Li’s exquisite presence, for one (though she looks puffy and bored in more than one scene), and the sound of distant thunder that rumbles behind the underhanded doings at the Pang manse. But Temptress Moon is, like its title, a pretty trifle, evocative but quite without meaning.

For an aesthete with such correct and delicious fascinations (decay, mathematics, flesh, great paintings) and causes (literature and literariness, justice, loyalty), Peter Greenaway has made an extremely frustrating movie. The Pillow Book is the story of Nagiko Kiohara, a contemporary Japanese girl whose father, a writer, paints traditional greetings on her face every birthday and whose aunt reads to her from the pillow book of Sei Shonagon, a 10th-century courtier in the imperial palace. The writing and reading impress her so deeply that, after leaving an oppressive marriage in Kyoto, the grown up Nagiko (Vivian Wu) escapes to Hong Kong, where she searches for the perfect calligrapher-lover who will worship her body by writing on it.

At first Nagiko is satisfied to act as the canvas, but when she meets Jerome (Ewan McGregor), a young English translator, her search for expression leads her to become the pen, embarking on a poetic treatise in 13 “books” written across the bodies of 13 men. When Jerome betrays her with the publisher, a man she detests for exploiting and blackmailing her father, Nagiko shuts him out. Distraught, Jerome takes a typical Greenaway exit—numbed with pills, he drinks ink and lies down to die, the pillow book of Sei Shonagon open across his crotch. Nagiko has him buried with full ceremony, but the publisher hauls him up and skins the body for its poetry, The Book of the Lover. She hatches a plan of exquisite retribution to get the gruesome keepsake back, and the film ends with the first birthday of her and Jerome’s daughter, as Nagiko paints traditional greetings on the girl’s face.

The best justification for the follies of The Pillow Book is that Greenaway exists on such a rarefied aesthetic plane that he is helpless in the face of certain coarse clichés of sentiment and storytelling—he may not know how tired they are down here on Earth. Also, the promises of computer technology must seem awfully seductive to someone for whom they’re entirely fresh, but Greenaway’s entry point to technology’s cinematic potential is at a place that young people who grew up with the infernal machines take for granted.

His visual trope this time is an attempt to marry Japanese austerity, Hong Kong overload, and the seemingly compatible stripped-down neon wilderness of the computer screen. But where Chris Marker and Ridley Scott both foresaw an Asianized future in which computers will have long played a part—long enough to become participants in human lives, and not just cheap methods of alienation—Greenaway is titillated by computers’ repertoire of tricks.

The Pillow Book’s “window” technique, in which small boxes inset on the big screen allow more than one scene to run at once, look just like their inspiration—computer windows. Early on, there’s a scene at a printing shop that sports four windows of equal size in each corner, each showing a different aspect of the printing process—a witty comment on the industrial films that inspired it, if it wasn’t completely derivative of their method. Greenaway layers scenes, superimposing translucent images—of, say, a sheet of paper covered in script—over opaque ones, a charming technique that the best fashion photographers patented decades ago.

Not for Greenaway the tragic beauty of the industrial landscape: exposed pipes, peeling walls, dirty fingernails, the whole ’80s repertoire of post-punk picturesque. Everything he looks at must be spare, glistening, and voluptuous, so much so, in fact, that the inevitable entropy is almost indistinguishable from the vital state, a trick Joel-Peter Witkin has been demonstrating for years to agog MTV directors.

One of The Pillow Book’s impossible obstacles is the literature its characters are so fascinated by. Sei Shonagon’s diary is trivial, precious, and languid, a compendium of lists (“Things that are splendid”) and erotic confidences. What we hear of it seems an almost parodic vessel for all the uselessness and faux high drama of the dissipated aristocracy—a fitting pastime for a lady of leisure a thousand years ago, perhaps, but Nagiko’s obsession with the book makes her, a gorgeous high-fashion model in ultramodern Hong Kong, seem even more selfish and featherheaded. When “The Book of the Seducer” is damaged from waiting in the rain, the publisher rails, “You’ve ruined a masterpiece!,” but Nagiko’s writing hardly seems masterful—”The Book of Secrets” has “Closed eyes cannot read” scribbled on his eyelids, and “A hand cannot write on itself” between the fingers. More like obscure Puritan aphorisms or kiddies’ brain-teasers than great poetry.

But The Pillow Book consistently makes unimaginative points in ostentatiously imaginative ways. Nagiko rhapsodizes over the similar scents of skin and paper, an observation not remarkable beyond its subtextual function, as a gruesome foreshadowing of her lover’s fate. As in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, characters take sides over literature, and their fear and hatred of it are garishly formalized—Nagiko’s boorish sportsman husband pins a book to a target with an arrow; a frustrated Nagiko shoves her typewriter into the toilet. A montage of Nagiko and Jerome’s elaborate lovemaking includes insets of Japanese erotic prints—this classic falling-in-love sequence includes so much romping and splashing about of bathwater that it could easily be scored to “Happy Together” instead of a repetitive, minor-key French pop song.

The Pillow Book plummets to a close. After the return of the human leather manuscript, Nagiko buries it under a bonsai tree and compiles a list (“Things that make the heart beat faster”) for her own private pillow book, the product of her womanly adventures. While she narrates, a visual evocation unspools in insets—splashing bathwater, strenuous coupling, a montage of misty love memories that would be unbelievably corny in this context or any other. A small amount of jaundiced wit leavens the final scene, a wink in the direction of “Isabella and the Pot of Basil” as Nagiko and baby pose in a family tableau along with Daddy, the bonsai tree.

It is uninformative to report that Greenaway’s movies are beautiful; his baseline of visual extravagance is impossibly high. At this point, Greenaway could only challenge himself if he opted to shoot a meaningful film as drab as a ’70s sitcom. Still, his visual extravagance is unparalleled, and when inspired—The Pillow Book’s milieu is monstrously inspirational—he can still take your breath away with an image like that of naked Nagiko, tender as a peeled duck egg, curled and gently steaming in her urnlike bath for one. But The Pillow Book is not about the warmth and luster of skin or paper, or the delights of the flesh or literature; it’s about the cool art of appreciation. Admiration is as close as Greenaway lets his audience get to this exquisite creation.CP