Tucked deep into Don DeLillo’s Underworld is an exchange between the novel’s protagonist, Nick Shay, and one of his teachers, a Jesuit priest. It concerns language. The priest, to make a point about the boy’s abysmally poor vocabulary, taunts him to name the parts that make up his shoe. Aglet, grommet, vamp, quarter; Nick has never heard of them, but instead of shrugging it off, he turns the lecture into a wake-up call. He runs back to his dorm wanting to look up words, memorize them, spell them, learn them––for this, DeLillo quips in one of his most fulminating sentences, “is the only way in the world you can escape the things that made you.” Time and again during Nele Wohlatz’s Sleep with Your Eyes Open, I found myself going back to that line. Language serves in Wohlatz’s cinema the same function it plays in DeLillo’s prose: in a film whose characters are all, one way or another, trying to find themselves in a foreign land, it’s both a liberating force and means of self-actualization. 

It is also possibly Wohlatz’s overarching leitmotif. Her second feature and solo debut, The Future Perfect (2016), followed a teenager from China as she struggled to master Spanish and adapt to her new life in Buenos Aires. It was the story of an emotional and linguistic education; as she learned new tenses, so her existence started shifting from past and present to a hypothetical future. Sleep, in turn, expands and complicates its predecessor’s scope. Wohlatz swaps Buenos Aires for Recife, Brazil; here too, she trains her camera on deracinated people wrestling with an alien language and turf. But where The Future Perfect was firmly rooted in the perspective of its protagonist, Sleep unfurls as a much more polyphonic journey. Just as you think it will center on Kai (Liao Kai Ro), a young Taiwanese tourist who lands in Recife after a breakup, the script––written by Wohlatz and Future Perfect co-scribe Pío Longo––turns to a Chinese migrant she happens into during her trip, Fu Ang (Shin-Hong Wang), before changing perspectives and timelines again to follow another Chinese transplant, Xiao Xin (Chen Xiao Xin), whom Fu Ang met and fell for earlier in his Brazilian stint. 

If the diegesis sounds intricate, the experience is everything but. In someone else’s hands the Russian-doll narrative might have come across as a contrived artifice; in Wohlatz’s, the film’s sinuous meandering becomes a means to sponge something of the migrant condition itself. People cross paths and part ways; nothing is ever fixed, everything is replaceable, even and perhaps especially the undocumented folks making ends meet around Recife. Fu Ang runs an umbrella store, but the unfailingly sunny skies sound the death knell for the business––no sooner do he and Kai brush shoulders than the shop closes, and the man disappears. The mystery deepens after Kai recovers a box stashed with postcards written by Xiao Xin as a sort of memoir of her time in Recife. It’s a discovery that further fractures the film, opening it up to new digressions, characters, stories, and idioms.

Like all the drifters populating Sleep, Xiao Xin is suffering from a sense of psychic and geographic disjunction. If Kai is grieving over a lost love, she’s mourning the loss of her last adoptive country, Argentina, where she lived before bolting to Brazil, and where she learned Spanish, a language she’s now worried she’ll forget, and which she insists on using to write and process her thoughts. Her halted, accented voiceover aligns her with the teen at the heart of The Future Perfect, yet Sleep is just as concerned with teasing out the dislocation of other Chinese migrants around her. 

This elasticity is nothing new for Wohlatz. Her films all exist at the intersection of different geographies, languages, and cinematic modes. What is new––what’s perhaps most remarkable about her latest––is the sense of liquidity it radiates. Sleep is powered by a flaneur energy; all the different perspectives it embraces, and the ease with which it dances between them, speak to Wohlatz’s interest in capturing migration as an endless flow of gestures, bodies, and tales. Which accounts for the film’s form. Yann-Shan Tsai’s elliptical editing, seamlessly hopscotching between stories and timelines, echoes the suspended existence that everyone here––Kai, Fu Ang, Xiao Xin, and a gang of workers that includes a Portuguese polyglot played by Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (already seen in The Future Perfect)––must come to terms with. Even the very few diegetic songs that ricochet from speakers and radios, combined with the city’s own musique concrète of road works and construction sites, heighten the feeling of out-of-placeness. In a film with no univocal narrator, rootlessness serves as a kind of shadow protagonist, floating through it like a ghost. 

The tritest migration stories all work through big declarative statements to peddle their message––nothing farther from the nuance and subtlety of Wohlatz’s approach. It’s not that Sleep is oblivious to the violence and racism Fu Ang and others must confront. It’s that the film isn’t fueled by anger so much as a lingering unease, one the director translates as an inability to recognize your own body––your own self––in a foreign land. Identities take on a slippery quality. “Will I smell normal again when I go home?” Fu Ang asks, terrified his B.O. might have changed since he moved to Brazil. It’s a question that offers a terrific précis of Wohlatz’s project. That her Sleep can yield such a perceptive account of the displacement of its wanderers is because it ultimately couches that as a corporeal process. Under the sweltering Brazilian sun, smells, sounds, and textures collapse worlds and open up others. “Do you like it here?” characters are routinely asked. By the end, where and what that “here” might be is hard to tell. Sleep with Your Eyes Open hangs in a liminal region; call it an example of “suspended cinema,” a film that distends and stretches time to reimagine our bordered worlds, and what it means to live between them. 

Sleep with Your Eyes Open premiered at the 2024 Berlinale.

Grade: B+

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