Wayne Wang, one of American cinema’s most culturally incisive yet often underrated talents, heads to Japan for his latest feature While the Women Are Sleeping. A fully-fledged Japanese production with backing from Toei and a cast including the iconic Takeshi Kitano, this adaptation a short story by Spanish author Javier Marias finds the ever nimble Wang skillfully (if impersonally) navigating various cross-cultural potholes, only to end up with one of his least perceptive efforts.
Blocked novelist Kenji (a perpetually pensive Hidetoshi Nishijima) is holidaying at an idyllic seaside resort for a week with his wife Aya (Sayuri Oyamada), whose career as a literary editor has supported him through an extended bout of creative inertia. Aya’s current project requires her to spend much of the day with a more productive novelist as she assists with the completion of his latest manuscript, thereby leaving Kenji to a routine of sitting by the pool, jogging, and staring at a blank laptop screen as he struggles to make headway with his third book (his second failed to live up to the promise of his widely acclaimed debut, causing a crisis of confidence). However, the writer’s curiosity is piqued by another couple – the elderly Sahara (Kitano) and his much younger companion Miki (Shiori Kutsuna, flitting effectively between feisty and vulnerable) – prompting Kenji to follow the pair around the resort to determine the precise nature of their May-December relationship.
With most of its narrative between told from Kenji’s unreliable point of view, While the Women are Sleeping is foremost an exploration of voyeurism which provides many examples of such behavior but little in the way of detailed examination. Kenji is fixated on Sahara who has a vaguely defined relationship with Miki, whom he films sleeping every night, while much of Kenji’s snooping is captured by the hotel’s camera surveillance system, adding another watchful gaze to the proceedings. Having established a dialogue with Kenji, perhaps after sensing some unspoken common impulses, Sahara explains that he wants to have a record of Miki’s last moments because he knows she will eventually betray him, and he will be compelled to kill her. The quiet power of Kitano’s performance relies heavily on his self-cultivated screen persona, hulking figure, and weathered face, with the viewer expected to fill in the blanks (watching Sahara shave Miki’s neck with a straight razor will get the pulse quickening if you are familiar with Kitano’s ouevre).
As a mystery plot develops, though, it is uncertain as to how much is really happening since some of the twists may be dramatisations of chapters from Kenji’s novel for which the charismatic Sahara is serving as creative inspiration. There’s certainly a dreamlike quality to the film with the two principal couples seemingly being the only guests at the luxury hotel, while cinematographer Atsuhiro Nabeshima using a hazy, overcast palette, and some of editor Deirdre Slevin’s transitions seem designed to draw attention to telling lapses in continuity as Wang sketches a psychological framework that doesn’t fully hang together. With the exception of a striking, largely dialogue-free sequence between Kenji and Miki during a heavy downpour, he also fails to elicit much of an erotic charge from the entanglement of two couples experiencing emotional fallout.
If one was unaware who was behind the camera here, it would be tempting to take Kenji as the filmmaker’s cinematic alter-ego, desperately looking for a story and embellishing where necessary, although Wang, with more than twenty credits since his breakthrough independent feature Chan Is Missing (1982), has never endured an equivalent dry spell. Rather than identifying with his frustrated protagonist, Wang actually takes every opportunity to mock his highbrow pretentions and point to how such artists frequently flounders when engaging with others: a wigged-out restaurant proprietor (Lily Franky) who has known Sahara and Miki for some time is able to easily toy with and intimidate Kenji, while a canny police detective (Hirofumi Arai) puts the novelist on a social pedestal, only to soon have him on the defensive via a subtle change in his line of questioning. Kenji’s pragmatic wife even takes a few choice shots at his self-absorbed bubble, while insecurities stemming from his stagnant literary profile make it all too easy for Sahara to plant destructive suspicions of infidelity.
For all of its suggestions about the desires, foibles, and psycho erotic urges that lurk just beneath the surface, While the Women are Sleeping is an overly glacial and far too polite affair which settles for a clear resolution when an ambiguous open-ending may actually have been more satisfying.