Filmart: How Wayne Wang Rebuilt 'While the Women Are Sleeping' as a Japanese Story (Q&A)

Wayne Wang Berlin Getty H 2016
Getty Images

Wayne Wang Berlin Getty H 2016

The Hong Kong-born, U.S.-based helmer tells THR what his latest film owes to 'Lolita', working in a foreign language and not getting arrested.

Wayne Wang (Smoke, The Joy Luck Club) returns to Hong Kong, the city of his birth, with While the Women Are Sleeping, based on the eponymous short story by Spanish writer Javier Marias. The tale of a novelist with writer’s block and a mysterious older man-young woman couple, the setting for the story has been relocated from Barcelona to Japan.

U.S.-based Wang directs a Japanese cast, starring actor-director Takeshi Kitano, aka Beat Takeshi, as the older man, in a film about ageing, obsession and murder. Hidetoshi Nishijima plays the writer who becomes drawn into the bizarre world of Kitano’s relationship with his young companion, played by Shioli Kutsuna, who he videotapes while she sleeps.

Wang spoke to THR about switching the still photography documentation of the sleeping woman in the original story to video, transporting the story from Spain to Japan and how his own melting pot of cultural experiences helped him make the film.

When you first read the original short story, what was it that grabbed your attention?

I was intrigued by the idea of an older man obsessed with a young girl, who was 8 years old in the story, and who took still photos of her when she was sleeping. There was no suggestion of sexual involvement. His interest was in her innocence and that she should grow up into what he thought was perfect, but he was aware that she would be corrupted by the world, and if that happened, he would have to kill her. That story really got me going. In my imagination — and Takeshi thought the same when I spoke to him — he was like a scientist, similar to the way Nabokov (author of Lolita) collected butterflies.

I imagine it would have been a very different film, and much more controversial, if you had stuck with the girl being 8?

A very different film and maybe I would have been arrested. [Laughs.] We found a girl of 13 or 14 who looked a lot like the actress [Kutsuna] as an adult, who was in her 20s. Takeshi’s character shows some of the video documentation he has made of her since that age to the writer, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima.

Why did you choose to switch from the still photos of the original story to video?

I thought video would be more intriguing: it can capture subtle things like slight movements and breathing. And I’ve always thought that sleeping is a lot like dying and that very tiny movements would give it away that she was sleeping.

How did a story set in Spain come to be a film in Japan with an all-Japanese cast?

My producer Yukie Kito — who I’ve worked with for a long time — was trying to get the project together at Busan one year, where we won some kind of award, but couldn’t get all the financing. Then I get an email from Yukie saying that Takeshi had read a synopsis and wants to do it as a Japanese film with a Japanese cast.

Working in a language that you can’t understand, were you worried about nuances in the story being lost?

That was very nerve-racking, and I had to put some of my confidence in my producer Yukie Kito and the writer. The writer was very picky that she was not just going to translate, but rewrite in Japanese. There were so many layers of checks. The assistant directors were also completely bilingual. And then when I gave the script to the actors, especially Takeshi, they flagged a few things, too.

What was it like directing Takeshi, who’s known as quite a character?

He’s so powerful and so strong that I didn’t have to do much. The only thing that was kind of intimidating was that he told me he only does one take, even in his own films. But I got him to do a few. He joked with me that after we’d done one take, I always said, “That was perfect, let’s do another one.” He’d be like, “Why do we need another one if it was perfect?”

You’ve had a multicultural life — did that help prepare you to make this film?

My wife always tells me I’m a bird without landing gear. I love traveling; I love trying to get beneath cultures and understand them. When I go back to China, I don’t feel I’m really Chinese. I’m more American, but I’m not really American. What the hell I am, I don’t know.

How did you try and get a feel for Japanese sensibilities for the film?

I’ve always been fascinated with Japanese films, manga and culture. I was introduced to a film scholar who pointed me toward some Roman porno [theatrically-released Japanese softcore pornography] to get an understanding of Japanese sensuality. Then Takeshi recommended some Japanese films and novels. I learned so much; that’s why I make films.