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  • Benjamin May

While The Women Are Sleeping (2016) Review

Set in the Izu Peninsula of Shizuoka Prefecture, Kenji is a writer who is on holiday with his editor wife Aya at an exclusive resort. Struggling with writer's block, he seems dispirited with the little progress he has made on his third novel, and is growing ambivalent towards his marriage. By the pool one day, he spots a young woman together with a much older man, and becomes curious about their situation. After introducing himself to the man- an enigmatic character named Sahara- Kenji is drawn into a murky world of intrigue, obsessive perversions and possible violence.


Directed by Wayne Wang and based on a short story by Javier Marias, 'While the Women Are Sleeping' is a dark, slow-moving mystery that is engaging, though doesn't answer any of the questions it provokes. A psychological thriller exploring the nature of desire, voyeurism and mortality, the narrative is full of intrigue and the characters are complex. Sahara is a fascinating individual with an exceedingly strange obsession, and Kenji's investigation into his relationship with the younger woman- Miki- is initially gripping.

However, Wang doesn't allow the investigation to come to any sort of definitive conclusion, nor can the viewer be certain whether anything happening in the film is real or a figment of Kenji's imagination. Though some might find ambiguousness appealing, it serves to alienate and frustrate more than intrigue in this instance. Furthermore, when nothing at all is explained or concluded- a subplot about Aya's relationship with a supposedly older author, the fate of Miki or why the barman Iizuka seems to know everything about everyone- it seems as though Wang just couldn't have been bothered to tighten up his screenplay and satisfy his audience's natural desire for closure.


This is not to say that 'While the Women Are Sleeping' shouldn't be sought out, for the narrative is compelling, despite its lack of a satisfying denouement. Furthermore, Atsuhiro Nabeshima's modernist cinematography is striking, creating a stark contrast between the bright resort and the dark, shadowy interiors where Sahara and Miki reside. He also uses long shots to emphasize the isolated loneliness of the characters, as well as close-ups to capture their expressions and emotions. His camera often follows Kenji as he walks around the resort, creating a sense of movement and curiosity. The cinematography also reflects and reinforces the themes of voyeurism and desire, often showing Kenji watching Sahara and Miki from a distance, or Sahara indulging in his night-time hobby.

Additionally, Youki Yamamoto's soundtrack is atmospheric and enigmatic. A mix of classical, jazz and ambient music, it heightens the film's mood of elegance, mystery and tension. Moreover, the song that plays over the end credits, 'Fixer' by Akina Nakamori, is most appropriate thematically, as it concerns a woman trying to fix a broken relationship with a man who has a secret obsession.


'While the Women Are Sleeping' also boasts a fine cast, all of whom do commendable work. Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Kenji with a subdued curiosity that makes him an ideal conduit for the audience as he discovers dark secrets and hidden truths. Sayuri Oyamada is pitch-perfect as his wife Asa, who wants to help Kenji all she can, but knows they're both drifting apart. Shioli Kutsuna and Lily Franky also do brilliant work as Miki and the seedy barman Iizuka, though are arguably both underused. However, the film belongs to Takeshi Kitano, who- as Sahara- steals every scene he's in with a measured, menacing performance of intelligence and subtlety, ensuring your eyes are cast his way anytime he's on screen.

A dark, intriguing mystery that draws one in, though doesn't leave one satisfied, Wayne Wang's 'While the Women Are Sleeping' is a bit disappointing. While the cinematography and soundtrack are both striking and commendable, the ambiguousness of the narrative doesn't satiate one's desire for closure. Though the cast all perform admirably- especially Takeshi Kitano- they can't save 'While the Women Are Sleeping' from the realm of the underwhelming. Unfortunately, 'While the Women Are Sleeping', some in the audience might be too.

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