While The Women Are Sleeping
Japan (2016) Dir. Wayne Wang
If this was someone’s first time watching a Japanese film they’d probably think of the main premise “they’re a weird bunch”, so they may be quite surprised to learn that this film is based on a short story by a Spanish writer and directed by an American based Hong Kong born director!
Told over the space of a week at a high profile coastal resort in Shizuoka, novelist Kenji Shimizu (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his literary agent wife Aya (Sayuri Oyamada) are on a short holiday where Aya has business meetings and Kenji is trying to get over his writer’s block. Whilst sitting by the pool they spy a curious looking couple – the lissom young woman Miki (Shiori Kutsuna) and the much older Sahara (Takeshi Kitano).
Experiencing a sleepless night Kenji joins Sahara at pool side one night where the older man reveals his odd obsession – filming Miki every night while she sleeps, hoping to catch her last day for prosperity. Kenji doesn’t understand this but is intrigued by their relationship, and begins to follow them around town until he too becomes obsessed with Miki.
The original short story from Javier Marias provides the basic framework and philosophical premise of this adaptation, which has been eked out into a 103-minute pseudo-psychological drama by screenwriters Michael K. Ray, Lee Shin-ho and Mami Sunada. Covering themes of voyeurism, potentially improper relationships and paranoia, this is a slow burning affair full of ideas but sadly not a suitable one to end one.
Initially we are left to decide if Kenji’s interest in Miki and Sahara is down to his writer’s inquisitive thirst for inspiration or lust after Miki. The latter is self-explanatory as she is seen dressed mostly in virginal white and is presented as flawless almost ethereal being, while the former opens the relationship up to interpretation and supposition.
Because of the age gap between the two, eyebrows will rise at the sight of Miki and Sahara, with him being old enough to be her grandfather, but we learn that they have known each other since she was seven years old. This makes his dedicated nightly filming of Miki over the years incur more questions than answers.
Quite why Sahara should be bold enough to confide this odd peccadillo in Kenji isn’t explained here (but is in the original short story), giving us something else to muse over, the immediate theory is that Sahara is aware of Kenji’s interest in Miki. Sahara shows some of the tapes of Miki sleeping from over the years (he erases them daily only keeping the best ones) to Kenji with the same fervour of somebody showing off a rare autographed photo of Jesus.
By now Kenji’s interest is firmly piqued but what of Miki feelings about this? She is posited in the unusual role of being a subject of adoration without being paraded as a trophy wife. While there is an element of passivity to her quiet behaviour she doesn’t look happy either, as if she has resigned herself to a life of being an unconventional muse for Sahara’s affection.
From this point on all signs suggest an affair between Kenji and Miki is on the cards but the script refuses to go in that direction. Instead, Kenji starts writing again in between sneaking into Miki’s room when she is out, at one point actually hiding under the bed when she comes back. This reveals another side to the tacit girl’s personality but as ever remains shrouded in ambiguity.
Because Marias’ original short story is basically a series of two-handed conversations and detailed observations to pad it out, the plot isn’t that substantial in terms of being a tangible occurrence; in other words, everything about the relationship, the tapes and the motive behind it is all told through the older male’s revelation, thus has no real grounding in reality and frankly, could all be a bluff.
Director Wayne Wang however isn’t afforded the luxury of suggestion, therefore the filming of the sleeping beauty has to be shown rather than a delineated idea, meaning a whole new set of circumstances are required to facilitate a new conclusion. To achieve this the lines of reality and fiction are blurred for Kenji and his two worlds collide in a series of nightmarish escapades serving to confuse the issue further.
Wang has understood how to recreate the very essence of Japanese cinema, the culture and the people in this film. The translocation from Spain to Japan is fully realised with careful attention to detail with barely any noticeable traces of the story’s origin. This is most notable in the character of Miki.
In Marias’ version she is a voluptuous Spanish siren only interested in her appearance – in the form of Shiori Kutsuna she is slender, quiet young woman whose babyface look adds a chilling suggestion of paedophilia to the relationship, which is neither confirmed nor denied.
Casting the legendary Takeshi Kitano as Sahara ensures much interest for this film in Japan; his grizzled poker face is well suited for such a divisive role, played with Kitano’s effortless gravitas and gritty aplomb. Hidetoshi Nishijima carries the weight of Kenji’s frayed mind well while there is a brief appearance by Lily Franky as a vexatious café owner.
As a slow burning thriller this starts of with good intentions and hooks us with its decidedly unnatural and borderline fetishistic premise. But once this passes and begins to gather pace the story becomes burdened with too many abstract ideas it can’t seem to resolve. Then there is the lack of sexual frisson between any of the character to make them all seem pawns in someone else perverted game.
For a film that dares to step outside the norm but ultimately is unable to safely reel itself back in, While The Women Are Sleeping is a different mystery yarn than dances of the edge of being something good but falters with a confusing final act.