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Sleep with Your Eyes Open (Dormir de Olhos Abertos)

Chinese film entirely set in Brazil ruminates on rootlessness, wanderlust, and insurmountable cultural and linguistic barriers - from the Encounters section of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival


Kai (Liao Kai Ro) is a young Taiwanese woman waiting for the boyfriend at the airport. He fails to show up, and she drops her mobile phone in the toilet. She travels on her own to Recife, a large coastal city in Northeastern Brazil. She does not speak a word of Portuguese, but has good command of Spanish. She bonds with an Argentinean tourist and tries her very first caipirinha (her facial expression suggests that she did not enjoy the sweet and sour alcoholic drink). She settles in a hotel, and is able to fend for herself mostly due to the fact that Portuguese and Spanish are largely intelligible.

She befriends Fu Ang (Wang Shin-Hong), a Chinese umbrella merchant confident that the rainy season will boost his product sales. She is given a box of old postcards, which turn out to tell a story.Xiao Xin (Chen Xiao Xin) lives with her aunt in a middle-class apartment, and they run a business selling plastic flowers.Argentinean actor Nahuel Perez Biscayart plays a very strange role as a Chinese-speaking worker. None of the characters interacts ostensibly with Brazilians. Xiao uses the postcards as some sort of diary, and she develops an unlikely connection with Kai. Their stories intertwine as Kai becomes increasingly immersed in the writings. Could the two women also cross paths in real life?

Fu Ang is a fish out of water, in more ways than one. He’s a fisherman who no longer fishes, and he’s an immigrant who failed to integrate (and seemingly has no desire to change that). He bemoans the local cuisine: “Brazilian food feels like loads of small things stuck together on a plate” and “they just put farofa [manioc flour] on everything”. He longs for a smorgasbord of Chinese dishes, which he list out eloquently. Language is a major barrier, too: Fu barely speaks broken Portuguese, and complains that all the sentences end with “não” (“not”). Even more crucially, he constantly misses China: he boasts that his home nation is “changing every day”, while life is Brazil is mostly static, and that “everywhere looks the same”. The constantly worries that his body odour may have changed. The other Chinese characters seem to have a similar outlook at life. None of them looks particularly keen to grasp the local culture and forge a sense of belonging. Instead, they wallow in wistful rootlessness.

Brazilians aren’t always particularly helpful, either. There is a latent racism that occasionally shows off its ugly face. A very unpleasant neighbour sees himself into Xiao’s apartment, speaks a made-up Chinese language, and confronts the family with some mock kung fu moves. Someone throws an entire watermelon on the hapless people as they sit on the building’s playground. The Chinese barely move a muscle as the loud and aggressive Brazilians attempt to mortify them. Their attitude instead is quiet and passive – geometrically opposed to the abusive behaviour bestowed upon them. This is yet another example of the huge cultural gap between the two nationalities.

Sleep with your Eyes has remarkable similarities with Brazilian classic Neighbouring Sounds (Kleber Mendonca Filho, 2012). Both films take place in a coastal middle-class district of Recife, a place dotted with heavily-surveilled high rise buildings. Both boast long sequences and a static camera casually capturing the life of ordinary people. Just like the Brazilian director, the German helmer (who has lived in Brazil for several years) pays close attention to the noises that imprison these people: a constantly beeping air con, neighbours having wild sex, neighbours listening to loud music, the hustle and bustle from the high street. In fact, Mendonca is one of the film producers.

Unfortunately, the metalinguistic artistic device (the story-within-a-story narrated through the postcards) becomes a handicap. It often isn’t clear whether the sequences are flashbacks, an enactment of the events in Kai’s mind (as she reads the postcards), or real developments in the present. The multithreaded script is just too disjointed. It took me a good read of the synopsis in order to put the puzzle pieces together, and understand the plot twists and power dynamics. Plus, some of the interactions feel contrived. The gently humorous scenes (the comments on body odour, and the mock kung fu, etc) fail to elicit laughter. And the linguistic gumbo becomes a little difficult to digest: Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish and even a little German are spoken in the film.

This is a heartwarming and inventive little movie that partly collapses under the weight of its own ambitions

Sleep with Your Eyes Open just premiered in the Encounters section of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival. The director’s previous feature The Future Perfect won the Locarno Film Festival in 2016.

By Victor Fraga - 18-02-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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