The last time Wayne Wang attended the Berlinale, he left with a Silver Bear for Smoke. His return, twenty years later, brings a slow paced reality twister set in a Japanese seaside resort, where a kooky perversion turns cutthroat.
Hidetoshi Nishijima is deadpan to the last frame as Kenji, and there’s something about the way he slaps handfuls of sun cream onto his wife’s back that hints at his total indifference to her. Despite having a pig as a husband, Aya (Sayuri Oyamada) will do anything she can to help him with his writing – even lending him her straw hat so he can peep unobtrusively through the holes at his new muse, the young girl, Miki (Shioli Kutsuna), reclining in her bikini by the poolside.
Sahara, the girl’s besotted old-enough-to-be-her-granddad boyfriend, played minimally and Buddha-like by Beat Takeshi, has been routinely videotaping at her bedside every day for at least six years. Based on their mutual obsession, Kenji forms a fateful relationship with this man.
“Have you ever watched an innocent young girl sleeping?” Sahara asks, popping in a favourite tape.
If you haven’t and you really want to, you’ll find plenty opportunity in this film: at slightly different ages, lying in slightly different positions, draped only in the white cotton of her nightdress…and these are only “the good ones” that Sahara keeps. The rest he tapes over, because the day that he’s waiting to record will be her last one – the day she betrays him. It’s remarkable really that she’s waited this long.
Elsewhere, the show-stealing bar owner, to whom Kenji goes for information, always gives him plenty – just not the kind he was looking for:
If sleeping young girls are not your thing, then Iizuka (Lily Frankie) can tell you the most sexually appealing unit of measurement in ladies’ stockings (40-60 denier), or the reason male calico cats are all knackered and sit around with their tongues hanging out
(because pressed into service to repopulate their dwindling species, they get handed too much pussy on a plate, and making anything too easy turns you stupid).
Then there’s a brilliant turn by Hirofumi Arai as a Japanese Columbo-alike who wears a suit instead of a raincoat, and smokes a cigarette instead of a cigar, but who has that same disarming air about him, chummily leading his suspect into a false sense of security before fixing him in the eye and potting the killer six-ball question.
But enough of these distractions – let us get back to the sleeping young girl, where the prurient camera lingers on any uncovered part of her body it can find, slowly creeping over her skin. By now, however, we’re not just looking at her through Sahara’s lens, but through Kenji’s hypnotized eyes – sitting behind her in a cab or hiding under the bed – and as his dubious ‘research’ spills over into voyeurism, the audience is forced to go there with him: look at her irresistible shoulder, look at her perfect ankles, just look at the way her toes tickle and stroke the floor.
Tempestuous tides and storms stylistically smash up the ponderous atmosphere and emphasise the emotions, and with his kitbag of deliberate movie clichés, you can almost hear Wang chuckling to himself at the darkly ludicrous game he’s playing. As Sahara loses trust in Miki, Kenji loses trust in his wife, and the audience starts to lose its grip on the storyline. When not before time, Miki comes to her senses and runs away, we find her drifting dreamlike onto some rocks in the rain, clinging first to them, and then to Kenji in one of many inexplicable narrative back-somersaults.
How did he get there? Is he living it or writing it? Is it the story or your brain that’s getting splintered? No, it must surely be his corrosive obsession that’s leading his imagination astray. He must be what they call in the trade, ‘an unreliable narrator.’
Any mildly confused and festival battered members of the audience who came away from the Zoo Palast cinema thinking like this, might have wound up staggering back along Ku’damm in a neon blur of peripheral double vision, wondering whether or not they were making up the fact that the writer was making it up, before falling asleep on the U-Bahn with their tongues hanging out. If this was the intended effect, it’s a wily directorial ploy. After all, making anything too easy turns you stupid, and so a film that tangles you up in a calico cat’s cradle of psychosis and confusion is probably quite a healthy thing once in a while.
Verdict: 3 stars
Written at the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) – 16th February 2016