Takuji Ahn Sung-ki
Tia Christine Hakim
Kamimura Koji Yakusho
Kiyoji Masaso Imafuku
Fumi Akiko Nomura
Underlying Kohei Oguri’s “Sleeping Man,” a film of mesmerizing beauty, are traditional Japanese attitudes toward nature, life and death, with a focus not on tension and opposition but on harmony and unity. Oguri’s fourth film, which follows his accomplished “Sting of Death,” is a quiet, demanding film that deserves to be seen in major film festivals and select arthouses as a sample of the best recent Japanese cinema.
Oguri has gained international acclaim, though only his debut, the Oscar-nominated “Muddy River” (1981), has been released theatrically in the U.S. A master of long takes and even longer silences, Oguri presents imagery so spellbinding that it’s almost impossible to distinguish between content and form in his work.
Set in Hitosuji, a fictitious rural Japanese village, “Sleeping Man” tells the story of a seemingly calm, uneventful place surrounded by mountains, forests and wild rivers. Title refers to Takuji (Ahn Sung-ki), a man lying unconscious in bed as a result of a mysteriously unspecified accident in South America. Pic’s recurring motif is that of the sleeping Takuji encircled by family and friends, a calm, intimate image placed against the lush landscape outside his farmhouse.
Non-narrative in the conventional sense, “Sleeping Man” loosely interweaves the lives of half a dozen characters. Prominent among them is Kamimura (Koji Yakusho), Takuji’s classmate, who comes to visit him and reminisce about their childhood days in the forest. Working in a local bar is Tia (the charismatic Christine Hakim), a beautiful Southeast Asian woman whose son drowned in a flood caused by deforestation in her country. She slowly befriends Kamimura and the other villagers, who are at first suspicious of her because she’s an outsider.
In the film’s most lyrical sequence, which follows the performance of a Noh play, Kamimura and Tia wander separately in the mountains, converging in the hut that Kamimura shared with Takuji in their boyhood days.
While Takuji lies in bed, the seasons come and ago, affording director Oguri and talented lenser Osame Maruike the chance to worship nature in all its changing splendor. Oguri’s approach is elegiac, celebrating the richness of a traditional way of life that is all but lost while accepting the inevitability of technological evolution. Without anger, “Sleeping Man” advocates consonance with nature as much as possible.
As if to further the universality of his thematic concerns, Oguri’s casting transcends national boundaries: The sleeping man is played by a Korean actor, and Tia by an Indonesian actress.
In a highly inventive, poetic manner, “Sleeping Man” is narrated not by words , but by images, which give the sparse, meager story its formal structure and distinctive aesthetics. By American standards, pacing is excessively slow, perhaps even dull, but Oguri’s tempo suits a metaphysical film that encourages viewers to reflect on their own relationship with the universe.