Director Wayne Wang is traveling. After his visit to China to work on Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, he continued his voyage east in order to direct the newest addition to his oeuvre. Onna ga Nemuru Toki [While the Women Are Sleeping] is an adaptation of Spanish writer Javier Marias' short story, set in Japan with a fully Japanese cast. The result is an interesting mix of cultures and influences, dominated by Wang's subdued yet detailed style of direction.
Wayne Wang is a pretty unique director. Born in Hong Kong, he actually started his career in the USA. Even though Smoke and The Joy Luck Club brought him minor success, he never managed to secure a permanent seat in the mainstream. His films are rather hard to come by and most of his work is overlooked (though I'm pretty sure directing Maid in Manhattan didn't help his status). Hopefully for Wang, Onna ga Nemuru Toki will turns some heads back his way.
I never read the original story, but its premise provides all the necessary material for an intriguing film. The story was moved to Japan and some minor details were changed, but from what I've heard the core of the story remains very much intact. Onna ga Nemuru Toki is a mystery with subtle yet definite mindfuck elements. It's one of those films that starts off quite normal, but not long after strange bits begin creeping in, piling up until they become an unsurmountable puzzle that cannot be ignored.
The story follows a couple out on a work vacation. Kenji is a writer, Aya an editor. Aya is visiting one of her clients who lives in the neighborhood while Kenji remains at the resort to rest. One afternoon by the pool, Kenji notices and old man and a young girl who are more than just familiar with each other. Intrigued by the odd couple, he decides to follow them around as he tries to figure out how the two are related. When Kenji learns about the weird fetish of the old men, his mind starts to wonder.
I haven't seen enough Wang films to know how strong a visual mark he leaves on his films, but if you've seen Smoke and you imagine that film through the eyes of a Japanese cinematographer, you come pretty close to the look of Onna ga Nemuru Toki. That means very strict camera work, beautiful framing and rigid but atmospheric use of color, giving the film a slightly dreamy impression. It's not the most expressive or energetic of films, but it looks beautiful nonetheless.
The soundtrack is a mix of classic piano tunes with some more modern touches in between. It captures the essence of a Japanese drama soundtrack, but adds a little extra Western flavor without it becoming too cheesy or distracting. It's a nice blend of influences, though the result isn't all that remarkable or memorable. It's simply a good soundtrack that does the film a couple of favors, but won't leave a big enough impression to label it a true asset.
The casting is right on the mark though. Hidetoshi Nishijima is great as the confused writer, Sayuri Oyamada excellent as his pushy wife. Still they are overshadowed by the presence of Takeshi Kitano, who plays the part of the old man. If you're not a fan of Kitano's style this role probably won't do much to convince you. After all, he's somewhat of a one-trick pony in front of the camera. But I love the man and the weight he puts on his characters and he really shines as the strange and somewhat pervy old man. Also kudos for casting Lily Frankie as one of the secondary characters, it's always fun seeing his face pop up.
While the mindfuck part of the film is somewhat explained, Wayne leaves it to the deduction of the viewer to piece everything together. Unless I missed it, there's no scene or snippet of dialogue that truly reveals what the whole mystery was about. You may find that confusing, especially if you were hoping for a James Wan kind of ending, but in my opinion is does a better job at leaving the mystery intact while still explaining in broad lines what exactly you've been watching.
Onna ga Nemuru Toki is a fine mystery/thriller. The film looks great, sports a good soundtrack, has a perfect cast and handles both its mystery and its audience with the proper respect. It's not the most flashy of films and chances are more bolder films will quickly take its place, but its core qualities are rock solid and shouldn't wane with time. Wayne Wang's journey to Japan was a successful one, if it's up to me he can prolong his stay for a little while longer and make it a Japanese trilogy of some kind.