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BUFF ’24 Movie Review: “SLEEP” will keep you awake and unnerved

Tuesday, April 2, 2024 | Reviews


Starring Jung Yu-mi, Lee Sun-kyun and Kim Gook-hee
Written and directed by Jason Yu

Troubled slumber, a pregnant protagonist, and an apparent ghost; there were many ways SLEEP could have tumbled into the conventional. Instead, this Korean production finds consistently intriguing and frequently frightening ways to both personalize the scenario and take it in unexpected directions. Currently making the festival rounds (including the Boston Underground Film Fest) and set for commercial release later this year, it’s further proof of the durability and malleability of cinematic Asian-horror traditions.

At a tight, taut 95 minutes, SLEEP runs significantly shorter than much Korean genre fare; indeed, there’s a point in the later going where a significant development seems glossed over. Yet writer/director Jason Yu, making a most impressive feature debut, maintains a methodical, unhurried, always engrossing pace that’s attuned to both emotional and situational detail. A protégé of PARASITE and THE HOST filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, Yu has created in SLEEP a film with the domestic intimacy of the former and emphasis on a family unified against a scary threat from the latter.

The family in SLEEP is in progress: Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) is pregnant with her first child by her husband Hyun-soo (Lee Sun-kyun), and she is devoted to supporting Hyun-soo, an actor struggling to rise past functional roles like security guards. (Yu gives us a brief glimpse of an award he’s won, and though English-speaking audiences can only glean what’s translated in the subtitles, it would appear this is a present from Soo-jin rather than an actual honor.) There’s even a wooden plaque on their apartment wall inscribed with “Together, there is nothing we can’t overcome.” Little do they know…

SLEEP starts off with a smile as we observe the slumbering Hyun-soo committing an act known to cause tension between couples: He’s snoring away. Very shortly, he does something else that’s rather more unsettling, sitting up in bed and intoning, “Someone’s inside.” No one else appears to be in the apartment when Soo-jin investigates, and there seems to be a rational explanation: He was just repeating a line from his latest role. Then his increasingly strange behavior on subsequent nights suggests that perhaps someone’s inside him, as he scratches himself until he draws blood, sleepwalks and demonstrates unusual appetites. Yu’s controlled and precise presentation of Hyun-soo’s odd acts gets us on edge, and Soo-jin too; she’s particularly concerned given that their baby is due very shortly. (Their other “child,” a cute little Pomeranian named Pepper, might also be at potential risk, adding another level of black-humored tension.)

Yu builds plenty of shivery anticipation as SLEEP presents the time-honored tug of war between science and superstition. The couple visit a doctor who suggests medical therapies that might alleviate Hyun-soo’s increasingly alarming “symptoms,” while Soo-jin’s mom insists that assorted blessings and visits from a shaman hold the answer. If this is in fact a haunting, Yu drops hints about who/what might be responsible via a downstairs neighbor whose lineage holds a possible explanation. In many films like this, the solution to the mystery is clear (and almost always involves the occult); what sets SLEEP apart is that Yu tantalizingly keeps both possibilities in plausible play throughout the runtime.

What’s important in SLEEP is not really the source of Hyun-soo’s affliction, but how he and Soo-jin deal with it, and particularly the latter’s determination to help her husband while at the same time protect their baby after it’s born. So many movies of this type deal with single protagonists going it alone, sometimes with kids, that it’s almost revelatory the way Yu makes his protagonists’ relationship so crucial to SLEEP’s suspense. Both actors are excellent, as Jung gives a fierce yet occasionally fragile reading of Soo-jin’s forging ahead though ever-more-trying circumstances, while Lee affectingly conveys Hyun-soo’s emotional collapse in the face of the “sickness” that threatens both his home life and career. (The characterization bears an especially tragic dimension given that Lee himself died by apparent suicide last December.)

One of the very best things about SLEEP is that its final act, when the story might be most expected to go in conventional directions, takes a turn that many viewers will likely not see coming. The last 15 minutes or so are truly harrowing, and at the same time, there’s a subtle quality to the way the resolution can be read in two different ways. It may seem obvious what’s going on, yet enough clues have been planted that another explanation is entirely possible, even as Yu never explicitly hints at it. It is the filmmaker’s admirable achievement that his film leaves us scared and satisfied while also giving us something to sleep on.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).