For a psychothriller on sexual obsession and voyeurism, “While the Women Are Sleeping” comes off as glacial and antiseptic, like “Rear Window” without murder, or “Lolita” without pedophilia. Exploring a creatively blocked novelist’s descent into neurosis after he meets and begins stalking an older man and his teenage squeeze at a Japanese seaside hotel, the film is tinged with Freudian mumbo-jumbo and recycled meta-fictive tropes, and Chinese-American helmer Wayne Wang’s stylishly glum aesthetics and mechanical plotting never get under the characters’ skin — or their sheets — leaving the story’s kinkiness an under-explored domain. The pic boasts festival cachet thanks to its arthouse-friendly leads, Takeshi Kitano and Hidetoshi Nishijima (fresh from their partnership in “Mozu the Movie”), though mainstream domestic response looks drowsy.
The film is adapted from a short story by Spanish writer Javier Marias, exploring a middle-aged man’s ritual of taping his young lover while she’s asleep to consecrate the impermanent beauty of youth. Scribes Michael K. Ray, Lee Shin-ho and Mami Sunada have skillfully fleshed out this philosophical premise into a seductive encounter between two couples and their four-way transgressions, in a way that echoes Paul Schrader’s “The Comfort of Strangers,” only with less overall menace. Given the story’s interest in voyeurism and the Lolita complex, the transposition to Japan feels so natural that, with full Japanese financing and production, Wang’s involvement seems fairly mystifying, since he leaves hardly any imprint of personality on the project.
While vacationing at a luxury resort on Japan’s Izu Peninsula with his wife, Aya (Sayuri Oyamada), novelist Kenji Shimizu (Nishijima) is irresistibly drawn to another guest couple: burly old man Sahara (Kitano, using his stage name Beat Takeshi) and Miki (Shioli Kutsuna), who’s young enough to be his granddaughter but behaves more like his mistress. Shimizu impulsively stalks them, perhaps bewitched by Miki’s nymphet charm, but also driven by curiosity or envy about Sahara, who stomps around like he owns the world.
While tailing the couple, Shimizu walks into a run-down izakaya and is scrutinized by its weird owner, Iizuka (Lily Franky, sporting his usual spaced-out, laid-back droll), who offer tidbits on Miki’s past. Out of the blue, Sahara befriends Shimizu and Aya. Whether or not Sahara is aware that Shimizu has been a peeping Tom, he nonetheless shows him mini-DV tapes of Miki sleeping.
It becomes intriguingly ambiguous whether Sahara and Miki’s relationship is completely chaste or flagrantly sexual; certainly his fetish for watching “innocent girls sleep” could be the starting point of a journey into twisted but fascinating places, real or imagined. But the screenplay doesn’t take the conceit much further, and Sahara’s continual wonderment about Miki’s sleeping positions sounds both oblique and obvious, providing no real insight into anything.
Although there’s no first-person voiceover, Shimizu’s p.o.v. takes over about midway through, adding more layers to the plot. Not only have his creative juices dried up for years, but he also seems to have lost his mojo in bed, and there’s something fishy about his editor wife’s daily excursions to meet an author she purports to be working with. As Shimizu becomes more volatile, the narrative kicks into high gear, toying with the possibility that everything could be a figment of his imagination or excerpts from his new novel. But the rushed editing releases the tension too quickly, and the build-up to a climactic revelation abruptly makes a steep turn into a mildly surprising but not particularly satisfying coda.
The actors tackle their roles with unfaltering determination, but don’t generate enough of a sexual frisson. Nishijima is all simmering intensity, but his reactions become progressively exaggerated as his character arc becomes more ambiguous. Kitano lugs his bear-like frame around with the surly mannerisms and blank expression that have become his trademark. Australian-born Kutsuna offers glimpses of skittish sensuality in unguarded moments and deserves more room for expression. Oyamada makes convincing shifts between Aya’s capricious moods and cold calculations.
Craft contributions are polished but not distinguished for a Japanese studio production. Norifumi Ataka’s production design creates a lonely, spacious yet confined backdrop for the protagonists’ mounting mistrust; the action is shot mostly within the hotel complex, with frequent conversations taking place by an always empty pool. Despite the summertime setting, the wintry color scheme of charcoal gray, navy and ocean blue is as melancholy as the urban mise-en-scene of Wang’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.” Against this somber backdrop, Miki glows in her uniformly white outfits, which all look like slips of one cut or another.