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While the Women are Sleeping

Sinister arthouse drama starring Takeshi Kitano from Chinese-American filmmaker Wayne Wang…

Chinese-American director Wayne Wang has had a very interesting and varied career, from his award-winning 1982 indie breakthrough Chan is Missing through to Hollywood schlock like the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Maid in Manhattan and the big budget China – US coproduction Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. For his latest he takes on something different again in the form of Japanese psycho drama While the Women Are Sleeping, adapted from Spanish writer Javier Marias’ short story of the same name. Having screened in the Panorama section of the 66th Berlin International Film Festival, the dark film has a top-drawer cast, headlined by Kitano Takeshi (Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen), Kutsuna Shiori (125 Years Memory), Nishijima Hidetoshi (Creepy) and Oyamada Sayuri (Key of Life).

The film begins with Nishijima Hidetoshi as Kenji, a frustrated novelist who has failed to live up to the promise of his acclaimed debut and who is questioning his calling as a result, considering taking on an everyday salaryman job. Hoping to spur him back into writing, his literary agent wife Aya (Oyamada Sayuri) takes him on holiday to a beach resort, where they meet fellow guests Sahara (Kitano Takeshi) and his considerably younger girlfriend Miki (Kutsuna Shiori). Kenji becomes intrigued by the mysterious Sahara, even more so when he confesses that he videotapes Miki while she sleeps, for the strange and creepy reason of wanting to have a record of her last day.

While the Women Are Sleeping certainly is a strange one, and though its premise might sound like a reasonably straightforward modern noir or Hitchcockian suspenser, Wayne Wang takes things in a more ambiguous direction. Certainly, the film’s influences are clear, its themes of voyeurism and sexual obsession recalling Rear Window, Lolita and others, though Wang steers clear of going down the same paths, instead aiming for creepy suggestiveness and vague menace. The film succeeds to an extent, having an unsettling and stifling atmosphere throughout, events unfolding from the perspective of the increasingly paranoid Kenji in a way which keeps the viewer very much on edge and expecting the worst. Though the four main characters are sketched rather than fully developed, there’s an effective tension to their shifting relationships and Wang mines their uncomfortable dynamics for some engagingly taut confrontations. Things escalate in an unexpected way, and while the film never gets particularly explicit, there’s a definite air of threat and looming violence, and it does shock in places.

At the same time though, While the Women Are Sleeping is a determinedly arthouse offering, and may frustrate some viewers with its increasing obscurity and lack of logic. While anxiety and bewilderment do seem to be what Wang was angling for, the film during its later stages becomes borderline incomprehensible, going overboard as it blurs the line between reality, dreams and the novel Kenji may or may not be writing, only to wrap things up in surprisingly conventional fashion. The lack of character emotion doesn’t help, and the film wilfully lacks any kind of grounding or anchor, and quite understandably may come across to some as pretentious and lacking in narrative drive or focus. The film definitely isn’t one for audiences looking for clear meaning or traditional genre thrills, and though his direction is appropriately clinical and artistic, as well as visually impressive, Wang never quite seems comfortable or confident enough to give things the edge or depth they would have benefitted from. None of this is really the fault of the cast members, all of whom do their best with their enigmatic roles, Kitano coming off best mainly due to the associations many will make with his usual violent onscreen persona.

Clearly, While the Women Are Sleeping isn’t one for everyone, though it should go down well enough with patient viewers with a taste or tolerance for the cryptic, and who don’t feel the need for answers or sense. Wayne Wang does a decent job of pulling things together, and the film achieves above average results in terms of atmosphere and mood at least.

While the Women Are Sleeping is available from YesAsia.

About the author

James MudgeJames Mudge James Mudge
From Glasgow but based in London, James has been writing for a variety of websites over the last decade, including BeyondHollywood in the US and YesAsia in Hong Kong. As well as running film consultancy The Next Day Agency, James is also the Festival Director of the Chinese Visual Festival in London, an annual event which showcases Chinese language cinema... More »
Read all posts by James Mudge

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