While the Women are Sleeping
女が眠る時 「Onna ga Nemuru Toki」
Release Date: February 27th, 2016
Duration: 103 mins.
Director: Wayne Wang
Writer: Michael Ray, Lee Shin-ho, Mami Sunada (Screenplay) Javier Marias (Original Story)
Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Sayuri Oyamada, Lily Franky, Shioli Kutsuna, Makiko Watanabe, Hirofumi Arai,
An undercooked psycho-sexual thriller, While the Women are Sleeping wastes a stellar cast – Hidetoshi Nishijima (License to Live), Takeshi Kitano (Hana-bi), Lily Franky (Like Father, Like Son), Makiko Watanabe (Love Exposure) – on a poor story.
We are at a posh holiday resort on the Izu Peninsula with unhappily married couple Kenji (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an author, and Aya (Sayuri Oyamada), a book editor.
They are spending a week at the hotel over the summer. It is a bit of work and play, as she disappears during the day to coach an author while Kenji is left to his own devices and flip-flops between procrastination and wading through writer’s block. Although picture perfect together, marital strain is apparent as they snipe at each other over him skimping on sex and whether he should write or start life over as a salaryman. Things go really off the rails when they encounter a strange couple amongst the other guests.
Aya notices them first. They are a contrast in differences. There is the considerably older man, Sahara (Beat Takeshi), and a there is a younger woman, Miki (Shiori Katsuna). He is stolid, lumbering, and old, she is lithe, beautiful, and young. They could be grandfather and granddaughter but there is an uneasy physical intimacy. Kenji becomes intrigued – maybe by the relationship dynamic, maybe the sight of Miki, a naive beauty who he sees acting capriciously, saucily, maybe the strange, controlling nature of Sahara.
The film falls into psychodrama territory as Kenji becomes something of a stalker and follows the couple about town. Why is he interested? The story never really elaborates on it effectively (more on that later) but he goes further down the rabbit hole when he discovers Sahara records Miki every night with his video camera while the woman is sleeping. Unspoiled beauty, mortality, Sahara wants to record what Miki has and his controlling nature creeps into Kenji’s life. Just as the writer gets swept into the mystery surrounding Miki and continues stalking them over the week, Sahara takes an interest in him. Is it all a game for Sahara that Kenji has become part of, or is it something deadlier?
Again, the film doesn’t really elaborate on anything.
The main problem is that the story has strands of ideas that dangle tantalisingly but aren’t pulled at. The most obvious is how it starts with the Lolita-esque set-up of Sahara and Miki. What are its origins and just how sexual is it? The film doesn’t explain much. The characters are set up for intense conflicts as Kenji detects disloyalty from his wife and comes to fear Sahara’s influence on their lives but that falls to the wayside. More time is spent on the way the situation pricks Kenji’s author’s instincts and the film flirts with making some scenes part of the material he is inspired to write as it cuts between Kenji’s fantasy confrontations with the odd couple and a reality that is increasingly askew. What is reality and what is fiction? It is not at all to clear and it is ultimately unconvincing as it is half-hearted in execution.
Unfortunately, by fault of editing and a script that refuses to elaborate just enough or to linger on any one of these ideas before it jumps to another, it feels undercooked. It could have been a slow-burn drama like Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) in the way that there is a mystery and potential murder haunting everything, but While the Women are Sleeping’s narrative moves fitfully between plot points, scenes slipping to and fro without allowing tension to build. Which is a shame because the age and gender dynamics between Sahara and Miki, Kenji and his breadwinner wife Aya, could have been used to look at Japanese culture and male privilege.
It is also a shame because Wayne Wang has solid control of cinematic techniques to translate the emotions – canted angles as Kenji becomes crazed! POV shots for the stalking! – and the locations have good atmosphere – the roads and cliffs during the rain storm! The visual reference to Hana-bi! – it is just that the pacing is off and nothing, no stakes or deeper meaning, is allowed to build.
It is also a shame because the actors work pretty powerfully to imbue their characters with stirring emotions, Hidetoshi switching gears easily to play conflicted and obsessed while Oyamada perfectly portrays a wife with hidden layers of displeasure and potential duplicity. Meanwhile Kitano is Kitano. If the film had just allowed itself the time to meditate on particular elements and investigating them instead of hopping around between them, maybe there would be more to clutch onto.