Hong Kong / Japan, 1998
The Hong Kong film industry, mired in financial crisis for several years now, has looked to several alternative strategies for survival: idiosyncratic, ultra-low budget films that are quick to produce, and less risky if they lose money (Made in Hong Kong (1997), 9413 (1998), Love Will Tear Us Apart (1999), The Accident (1999)); massive high-concept and high-budget spectaculars that aim to fill the SAR's theaters again (Stormriders (1998), and A Man Called Hero (1999)); and coproductions, with the mainland, European investors, or East Asian partners who still have money to spend.
Sleepless Town, a Japan/Hong Kong coproduction, internalizes the issue of hybridization that can beset transnational film production. It is a hybrid in many ways: a Lee Chi-ngai magical romance grafted onto a baroque neo-noir, a Hong Kong art film cum Japanese contemporary hyper-urban thriller.
The film addresses its central issue right away: the prologue opens with narrator/protagonist Ryu Kenichi/Liu Jianyi (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) stopped by police in Shinjuku. To them, he's an outsider: he explains his "bastard" origins: half Japanese, half Chinese (casting comments on diegesis here: Kaneshiro himself is Taiwanese, of mixed Japanese Chinese parentage). From that point on, we're totally immersed in this mixed world of outsiders. With nary a cop nor detective in sight, Sleepless Town dwells in a self-sustaining underworld fraught with complexity: Chinese gangsters in Japan. Ryu Kenichi is connected with the Taiwanese sub-group, headed by Yang Weimin (Sihung Lung). Arrayed in shifting patterns around and against this central group are the Shanghai gang (headed by Yuan Chenggui (played by Eric Tsang)), a particularly vicious Beijing group (a small gesture in the direction of political point of view, here, or merely the non-Beijinger's contempt for "northerners"?), with scatterings of Cantonese and Fujianese, plus two children of Japanese colonizers of Manchuria. The film's dialogue, in -- at least -- Mandarin, Japanese and Taiwanese, makes this complexity audible.
This tangled setting, set in night-time, neon-lit Shinjuku, is classic noir material, and that's where Lee Chi-ngai's film centres itself. Practically the entire catalogue of the noir style is deployed: high contrast lighting, skewed camera angles, male narrator (though, in this case, a rather insufficiently paranoid one, as he goes about trying to untangle the baroquely complex conspiratorial web that he is enmeshed in), and a femme fatale. The plot concerns Ryu's former partner, Fuchun, who has mysteriously reappeared. The Shanghainese order Ryu to find and turn in Fuchun, against whom they hold a grudge. The Taiwanese and Beijingers are also interested, for complex reasons that don't become fully clear until the end of the film. And the femme fatale, Sato Natsumi/Xiao Lian (played by Japanese actress Mirai Yamamoto) has her own series of gradually exposed agendas and kaleidoscopically shifting identities. Ryu's challenge is to set the various groups against each other while surviving the growing emotional entanglement between him and Xiao Lian.
The film's problems begin when you begin to realise that none of the noir elements is deployed in a particularly fresh or subversive way. Writers like Haruki Murakami can take a similar character and situation and play with it, ironize it. And films like Swallowtail Butterfly (Shunji Iwai, 1996) use approximately the same milieu and Chinese/Japanese mix to tell a completely new kind of story.
Which makes me wonder if the production was largely set, in advance, by its Japanese investors (the credits inform us that it is based on a novel by Seishu Hase), who then brought in Lee Chi-ngai as a hired gun, for his stylishness, his crew, and his track record (particularly with his beautiful Lost and Found [1996 Tian ya hai jiao], which was both a critical and popular success in Japan).
Lee, along with Peter Chan, was one of the leading directors of United Filmmakers Organisation (UFO), whose formidably impressive list of productions in the 90s wed a polished, intelligent, middle-class consumable finish with liberal, middle-of-the-road attitude towards Hong Kong's nostalgic preoccupations with its past (as it feared for its future) and a sometimes satirical take on its present dilemma.
In Sleepless Town, Lee manages to inform the noir material with just enough of his own style to make a slick, gorgeously photographed, intriguingly inflected transnational, hybridized East-Asian neo-noir. The film's cinematography is its most striking feature: Lee and d.p. Arthur Wong Ngak-tai (whose filmography could be a roster of HK film's greatest cinematographic hits -- from Dirty Ho (1979) through Once Upon a Time in China I and II (1991/92), Dragon Inn (1992), Crime Story (1993), Temptation of a Monk (1993) to The Soong Sisters (1997) and Gen-X Cops (1999)) give us an unrelentingly gorgeous, complex and changing set of images and sequences. Sleepless Town deservedly won best cinematography and art design at the 1998 Hong Kong Film Awards.
Under the credits just after the prologue, a tour-de-force long tracking shot (4 minutes by my count) follows Ryu in and out of a brothel, through Kabukicho streets and encounters with various acquaintances and customers, into a building, and then, from the outside, glides upstairs, past a giant wall poster (the film's title, posing as a record ad: here, the shot changes from black and white to saturated colour) and through a window, where it meets Ryu again making a phone call. Following our first view of him, in the prologue, scorned and feared as an outsider by Tokyo cops, the shot refutes it and substitutes the continuous image of his character knitted into the fabric of an integrated community (one joining both the Japanese customers of Kabukicho with the presumptively marginal figures who satisfy their needs as consumers).
[warning to the "spoiler" averse, I have to discuss the ending a bit, below]
The most striking set of images involves Ryu and Xiao Lian's romance. Two and a half times (twice in the diegesis, and once, implied, in Ryu's final dream-memory), she leaps out of a moving car, in slow motion. Each time, the film conjures a flurry of white objects in her wake, floating papers first, feathers from a pillow with the second. And finally, in Ryu's dream, all we see is the inside of the car magically filled with snow (here his memory elides her leap, distilling it to the flurry afterwards). Xiao Lian had wished for snow in an earlier romantic idyll at a hot springs with Ryu, just before the final violent denouement. It is tempting to see this snow symbolism, surrounding Xiao Lian's ritualized self-sacrifice / self-destruction, as the film's way of undercutting the fatalistic and frankly misogynistic underpinning of its noir material.
[fn: Several striking images keyed to magical, possibly imagined appearances of snow -- in an earlier scene, Ryu thinks he imagines, and the film shows us, a snow-covered pier at the moment of Xiao Lian's death -- recall for me, at least, the sustained magical-romantic-realist tone of Lee's Lost and Found.]
Even though the form of Sleepless Town demands the final sacrifice of the femme fatale, its heightened overlay of romantic imagery undercuts that sacrifice, and at least symbolically revives her in the final scene.
I apologize for the rather speculative nature of the discussion above: I'm not familiar with the novel on which the film is based, so can't completely support my conjectures about what comes from the director, and what from the original material. It is difficult, though, otherwise to account for the limited success of Sleepless Town. Although I can admire what Lee Chi-ngai has constructed (and partially deconstructed) with this project, I'm not convinced that the resulting film is comfortable with its own hybrid nature. What might have been a source of creative tension instead restricts the film to a rather careful, unplayful experiment in the consequences of co-production, uncertain parentage, dual natures, mixed origins.
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