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BERLINALE 2024 Encounters

Review: Sleep With Your Eyes Open


- BERLINALE 2024: Nele Wohlatz’s transnational feature aligns form and content to create a meandering exploration of language and heritage within the Chinese diaspora of Brazil’s Recife

Review: Sleep With Your Eyes Open
Liao Kai Ro in Sleep With Your Eyes Open

Where does globalisation start, and where does modernity end? Stretched out in a thin line between these buzzwords of our century, diasporic communities float in and out of the media’s minuscule attention span, building a foundation upon which today’s societies are continuously being built. Existing in and breathing out this impulse is Sleep With Your Eyes Open [+see also:
film profile
, the newest transnational brainchild of German-born filmmaker Nele Wohlatz, who lived and worked in Buenos Aires for 12 years.

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Directed by Wohlatz and co-written by Wohlatz and Pío Longo, Sleep With Your Eyes Open, had its world premiere in the Encounters strand of the 74th Berlinale. It epitomises the denotational essence of the section’s title, where ephemeral moments come and go between people drifting in and out of each other’s lives. Wohlatz has already demonstrated the acuteness of her craft with her 2016 film The Future Perfect, which traverses Buenos Aires through the eyes of a newly transplanted Chinese teen learning Spanish and snagging the Best First Feature prize at Locarno.

Sleep With Your Eyes Open functions as a pensive exploration of the ever-evolving function of language and heritage within contemporary life, using Brazil as a case study. With dialogue spoken in Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish, English, and German, it unfolds as a sort of transnational marvel, meandering between an ensemble of characters with interconnected portraits of life.

Kai (Liao Kai Ro), a Taiwanese woman, arrives alone in the coastal Brazilian town of Recife on holiday after being jilted by her Spanish-speaking partner. There, she meets street stall salesman Fu Ang (Wang Shin-Hong), who then disappears. As Kai searches for Fu Ang, she encounters a group of Chinese migrant workers as well as postcards written by Xiao Xin (Chen Xiao Xin), a Chinese woman sent to live in Brazil with her aunt. Kai and Xiao Xin’s stories begin to have similarities, newly connected through their unusual connections. With an increasing transnational awareness, the film also features Mandarin-speaking worker Leo, played by Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, who is best known for his French filmography.

Sound design by Mercedes Tannin and Duu-Chih Tu and cinematography Roman Kasseroller together build a sense of Recife’s spatiality, where brass music plays invitingly around each corner and the bright colours of the city’s streets shine through. The roving narrative of 97 minutes, never becomes aimless. However, it refuses to settle on a single protagonist, which, while fitting the form, can be off-putting at times out of a viewer’s desire to dig deep into the fascinating lives of the characters.

Wohlatz navigates effortlessly between different communities with shared histories but disparate presents, further reflected in its co-production credits. Lives within systems of endless exchange are captured in objects and the material world around them, where postcards of Recife are made in China. “Do you believe you really understand the people you are translating?” Kai asks boldly of a German–Spanish translator at the beginning of the film. The answer is never meant to be found, only interrogated.

Sleep With Your Eyes Open is a co-production between Brazil’s Cinemascópio, Taiwan’s Yi Tiao Long Hu Bao, Argentina’s Ruda Cine, and Germany’s Blinker Filmproduktion. International sales are handled by China’s Rediance.

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