An extended stay at a resort hotel, seaside villa or a similar escape hatch is only a dream for most of Japan’s working adults. But local filmmakers — who are in the dream business — have made enough ensemble dramas about romantic/erotic entanglements in such places to launch a small subgenre. Wayne Wang’s moody drama “While The Women Are Sleeping” (“Onna ga Nemuru Toki”) is the latest addition to that subgenre, with an all-Japanese cast and an international staff headed by the Hong Kong-born director. Based on a short story by Spanish novelist Javier Marias, the film is set in an upscale resort hotel on the Izu Peninsula — a popular destination for generations of Tokyo holidaymakers — and unfolds over the course of five days, which is at least three more than the average punter here could spare.
We first see novelist Kenji (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his editor wife Aya (Sayuri Oyamada) lounging by the glimmering hotel pool and eyeing an odd couple across the way: Sahara (Takeshi “Beat” Kitano), an elderly man with a barrel chest and a boxer’s face, and Miki (Shioli Kutsuna), a girl with a lithe figure and smoldering eyes who looks young enough to be his granddaughter, but is probably his lover.
This pair sparks Kenji’s interest and Aya’s jealousy. The old man is lavishing attention on his age-inappropriate sweetie in a way that Aya now seldom sees from Kenji, who is distracted by his professional woes. Since publishing a best-selling novel years ago he has fallen into a slump so chronic that he is about to chuck the writing game and — horrors! — start a real job.
Any half-competent mystery writer could cook up a variety of plots from this setup, nearly all involving a body floating face down in the pool, but Wang and his scriptwriters — Michael Ray, Shinho Lee and Mami Sunada — do something more difficult and interesting: They set their befuddled hero to solving mysteries of the heart, including his own.
With nothing to do while Aya is away lavishing attention on a famous novelist (part of the editorial job description in Japan), Kenji makes the acquaintance of the man, Sahara, and the girl, Miki. But, as revelation follows kinky revelation, he begins to obsessively stalk them. In the course of this investigation — or delirium — the film, which felt unstuck in place and time from scene one, becomes more dreamlike, though never blatantly surreal.
Some images prove to be the product of Kenji’s troubled imagination, while others are all too real in ways enigmatic, erotic or disturbing. The line between the two, however, is fine and confusingly drawn for the inattentive. Then there is the cagey bar owner (Lily Franky) who talks to Kenji cryptically about Sahara and Miki’s past, while correctly doubting the purity of Kenji’s intentions. There is also a wily police detective (Hirofumi Arai) investigating a suspicious disappearance who assumes that Kenji is lying to him. Finally, one of Kenji’s sightings reveals something about Aya that could wreck his marriage — if it is what he thinks. But what does he actually know?
The answers to this question may not satisfy those looking for an all-is-revealed climax. Wang is looking more for big truths than pat plot solutions.
The key truth, which Kenji confronts at every frustrating turn, is that other people are unknowable. Sahara, the most mysterious of all, films Miki every night with his camcorder while she sleeps and erases the tape every day. “I want to record her last day,” he tells Kenji. Is this love? Madness? Or an intimation of murder? Who can say? In Kitano’s best recent performance, Sahara is a man of few words and scary, unpredictable actions.
But, like poor besotted Kenji, I wanted to keep watching anyway, right to the end of this baffling, entrancing, ultimately wise film.