'While the Women Are Sleeping' ('Onna ga Nemurutoki'): Berlin Review

While the Women Are Sleeping still 1 - Shioli Kutsuna and Beat Takeshi - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A stylish psycho noir never resolves its enigmas.

Iconic Japanese actor Beat Takeshi is a mysterious voyeur in Wayne Wang’s Japanese thriller.

An overly curious novelist delves too deeply into the affairs of an older man and his barely legal companion in While the Women Are Sleeping. In his first time filming in the land of the rising sun, versatile Chinese-American director Wayne Wang (Maid in ManhattanThe Joy Luck Club) deftly transfers Javier Marias’s enigmatic, semi-erotic short story from Spain to Japanese climes. The result has the calculated fascination of a Patricia Highsmith thriller, though minus her moral ironies and plus some very Wang-ian tongue-in-cheek satire. Shot with a light touch, pleasingly stylish and hard to second-guess, the film is a warm tease up to its deliberately ambiguous ending, which will leave audiences scratching their heads and limit business to card-carrying art house members. The Toei release bowed as a Berlin Panorama Special.

Wang is no stranger to the Berlinale, having won the Silver Bear for Smoke with Harvey Keitel twenty years ago. This is a very different modernist entry, which blurs the line between reality and fiction, offering no satisfying closure but letting the audience puzzle it out.

The spotlight is on the performance of a zen-like Beat Takeshi (a.k.a. director Takeshi Kitano) in the role of a mystery man besotted with his young girlfriend, who he tapes every day while she’s sleeping. In his first major role outside of his own films in a decade, he grounds the story with an electrifying presence that is at once lovable and menacing, and turns what might be seen as a harmless perversion into a much more unsettling means of control.

But he’s not the only voyeur in the story. Kenji (Hidetoshi Nishijima, the unforgettable beaten-up cinephile from Cut), a novelist with writer’s block, has an obsession with the strange couple and soon turns into a peeping Tom. And then there is the audience. Floating through the refined, slightly surreal atmosphere, the viewer is made to feel like a voyeur watching the men watching women.

Kenji and his wife Aya, an editor (Sayuri Oyamada), are sharing a week’s vacation at a fancy beach resort. After an acclaimed first novel, Kenji has fallen into a writing slump, and despite Aya’s coaxing is unable to start a new book. Inspiration is waiting on the other side of the pool, where they first notice the odd couple Sahara (the 68-year-old Kitano, looking very much like a retired yakuza) and his stunning 19-year-old girlfriend, Miki (Shiori Kutsuna). It’s obsession at first sight for Kenji, who begins to stalk them. The mystery surrounding them only deepens when Sahara lets him into his confidence and shows him the tapes he has made of Miki while she’s asleep. He says that he has filmed her every day for the last ten years, erasing each day’s previous tape, so he will have “a record of her last day.” Because one day he knows she will betray him. And then he will have to kill her.

It’s a nice set-up and handled with flair. Even though nothing terrible happens on screen — nothing worse than a pair of bright red socks slowly sinking to the bottom of the pool — Wang charges the atmosphere and every act is filled with danger. In one scene, the wide-eyed, perspiring writer hovers in the doorway of Sahara’s hotel room while the older man expertly shaves the neck of sleeping Miki with a sharp barber’s razor before photographing her. It’s an erogenous zone Westerners may not automatically go to, but is much more disturbing than brief glimpses of the girl’s bare thighs.

There's humor in the film, too. Actor Lily Franky peppers up the role of a spacey aging hippie who runs a cozy restaurant where the couples go and where Kenji applies for information. Though Aya, Kenji’s wife, seems too much the superficial chatterbox to count, she too has her day turning the tables, when Sahara plants suspicions of infidelity in his mind.

The Japanese tech work is outstanding in creating the kind of dreamlike atmosphere needed to make this work, particularly Atsuhiro Nabeshima’s stylish cinematography and Norifumi Ataka's minimalist production design centered around the hotel. As the film speeds to its end, some continuity questions arise — why is Kenji’s soaking wet jacket suddenly dry in the next shot? — that may be clues to the doubtful reality of what is happening around him.

Production companies: C.A.L
Cast: Beat Takashi, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Shioli Kutsuna, Sayuri Oyamada, Lily Franky, Hirofumi Arai, Makiko Watanabe
Director: Wayne Wang
Screenwriters: Michael K. Ray, Shinho Lee, Mami Sunada based on a short story by Javier Marias
Producer: Yukie Kito
Executive producers: Riichiro Nakamura, Toichiro Shiraishi 
Director of photography: Atsuhiro Nabeshima
Production designer: Norifumi Ataka
Costume designer: Miwako Kobayashi
Editor: Deirdre Slevin, Chikako Namba
Music: Youki Yamamoto
World sales:  Toei Company
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)

No rating, 103 minutes