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SLEEPWALK (director/writer: Sara Driver; screenwriters: Lorenzo Mans/from a story by Sara Driver and Kathleen Brennan; cinematographers: Franz Prinzi/Jim Jarmusch; editor: Li Shin Yu; music: Phil Kline; cast: Suzanne Fletcher (Nicole), Ann Magnuson (Isabelle), Dexter Lee (Jimmy), Steven Chen (Dr. Gou), Tony Todd (Barrington), Richard Boes (The Thief), Ako (Ecco Ecco), Roberta Wright (Fence), Steve Buscemi (worker), Harvey Perr (The Boss); Runtime: 78; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Sara Driver/Kathleen Brennan; Orion; 1986)
An indie gem, that deliciously mixes surreal fantasy with gritty reality.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An indie gem, that deliciously mixes surreal fantasy with gritty reality. Actress Sara Driver (“You Are Not I”)directs a Chinese fairy tale that weirdly encroaches on the life of a lower Manhattan dwelling twentysomething typesetter, Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher). It’s based on a story written by Driver and Kathleen Brennan. The film won the prestigious Georges Sadoul Prize in France.

The single parent Chinese speaking white American, Nicole, accepts a moonlighting job to translate a Chinese manuscript of old nursery rhymes for the sinister Dr. Gou (Steven Chen), whose name means Year of the Dog, and his threatening African-American sidekick Barrington (Tony Todd), a thug who tells us that he was formerly an academic. Nicole’s generously paid upfront in cash, and told to finish it in a few days and never let it out of her sight.

While working on the translation of the four fairy tales at night in the copy shop, located in a grimy warehouse,several strange things occur: Nicole’s self-absorbed, obnoxious, vain and chatty French roommate Isabelle goes bald, while one tale is translated; as another tale is translated, Nicole’s finger bleeds for no apparent reason and then heals itself; A frightened Japanese woman named Ecco Ecco (Ako), who was the owner of the stolen manuscript, is strangled to death with her own hair and mutilated before she shows up for her rooftop meeting to tell Nicole why it’s dangerous to possess the mysteriously almond-poison smelling manuscript; intermittently we hear the nursery tales recited offscreen by Ecco Ecco and by Nicole while at work by her work station;we learn by Nicole’s elevator trip down (visualized as a Dante’s Inferno-like descent) that on one of the stops Dr. Gou has an office in her warehouse and sleeps on a bed of almonds; and, later we are shocked that Nicole’s adolescent half-Chinese son (Dexter Lee) is inadvertently kidnapped by a small-time car thief (Richard Boes) while asleep in the back seat of the irresponsible illegal alien Isabelle’s unregistered car, as she visits a Chinatown herbalist for hair treatment when she was given $300 by Nicole to take the kid to an Atlantic City hotel while she works all night on the manuscript.

The strange connections between the laconic Nicole’s mundane life and the Chinese fairy tales are executed with eerily beautiful images, as it pushes the boundaries for the viewer to find for themselves where reality vanishes and fantasy begins. Driver will not resolve for us the opaque mystery story, even as it becomes more macabre and unsettling.

A most enjoyable and intelligent work, one that I highly recommend if you’re not concerned over lack of plot and are looking for something different and a pic that respects the viewer’s intelligence and is not easy to label. It asks the viewer to find their own way around such a magical and mysterious moody atmospheric pic, as its unique trance-like story is surprisingly free of allegory or poetic trappings. The aptly titled Sleepwalk, perhaps, can be lumped together with other worthy sublime non-narrative dream-like experimental films, such as Un chien andalou, The Blood of a PoetandMeshes of the Afternoon, whose common denominator might be surrealism.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”