When attending a film festival there’s an unspoken rule: you do not pass on South Korean horror movies. I sadly broke this rule earlier this year at Fantastic Fest, but managed to right my wrong here at the Philadelphia Film Festival, and boy howdy am I glad I did. This was the first of the late night screenings that I managed to attend, and it delivered on all the promises of your typical midnight movie and then some.
Sleep follows the struggles of a Soo-Jin (Jung Yu-mi) and her husband Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun), a young couple just a few weeks away from becoming first time parents. Soo-jin is very pregnant, but still at work, and Hyun-su, a successful actor, has just accepted an exciting new role. Together they should have no problem providing their child with the life it deserves. There’s only one problem, Hyun-su is having sleep issues. Major sleep issues. Like, of the “wakes up in the middle of the night to eat raw meat and try to leap out the window” variety. The couple seeks medical help, but Hyun-su’s nightly activities seem to only get worse and more dangerous. It’s exactly the type of behavior you don’t want in a household with a newborn.
Writer/director Jason Yu has crafted a consistently shocking horror flick that doubles as a deliciously twisted mystery with an extremely dark comedic streak. His style of direction is simplistic, but never basic. The camera placement works hard not to telegraph the more shocking moments (except for one which it milks for cruel delight), and the low-gray color palette falsely lulls the viewer into a sense of peace, only to have sudden influxes of stark reds and yellows at moments of pure terror. The tonal management is remarkably well-crafted for a first time feature director.
The biggest highlight of Sleep, however, isn’t the powerful direction or even the gleefully insane plot, but rather the terrific performances that drive it forward. Both leads are tasked with going to the darkest places while also maintaining each character’s humanity. As audience loyalties shift and story developments teach us more about each as an individual, we witness a shifting of their relationship dynamic that cannot be created in the scripting alone.
Overall, Sleep is a minor film, designed for the midnight crowd, but that’s not meant as an insult. There’s a hunger for clean, well-crafted shockers, and on that front, Sleep is a hell of a dish.
Directed by Jason Yu
Written by Jason Yu
Starring Lee Sun-kyun, Jung Yu-mi
Not rated, 95 minutes