Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by Morris Yang Featured Film

Sleep — Jason Yu [TIFF ’23 Review]

September 13, 2023

“Someone’s inside.” These two words, uttered with ominous clarity, spur Jason Yu’s invigorating debut, Sleep, into malevolent and mysterious somnolence; for in the world of dreams, what exactly constitutes “inside” isn’t quite established. For young couple Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) and Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun), their cozy apartment in suburban Korea is their sanctum from the pressures of a nation’s relentless capitalist economy. One night, Hyun-su, seated upright at the foot of the bed facing an open door, senses that this refuge has been violated. But after Soo-jin goes to investigate, and returns perplexed and unsuccessful at locating the source of the disturbance, a deeper, non-material interpretation is insinuated. Hyun-su begins sleepwalking, rising each night to wolf down raw meat from the fridge, scratch his face bloody, and perpetuate terrible violence. Something’s inside him, physically, and when the increasingly frantic duo aren’t able to distill it — whether through upping the dosage their doctor prescribes or through administering the rites of casual superstition — they do as all good philosophers do: investigate further. Naturally, this takes them into supernatural territory. If something is indeed inside Hyun-su, but can’t be physically manifested, then where else to look but the mind (or, if you like, the soul)?

In a sense, Sleep straddles the tantalizing nexus of modern horror’s metaphysical trinity — the corporeal, the psychological, and the otherworldly — without offering the certainty of any. Split into three acts, Yu’s screenplay corresponds roughly to these dimensions, although one would do well not to simplify them respectively. There’s a levity built into the proceedings which adopts a vaguely comedic register almost complicit in taunting the hapless but indomitable couple. While Hyun-su remains afflicted by what science terms REM sleep behavior disorder, Soo-jin’s pregnant with their first child; between her daily corporate grind as an executive (a third-act PowerPoint presentation will provoke hearty guffaws) and unease for postpartum in the vicinity of her progressively unhinged husband, the hijinks engaged in by Hyun-su in his sleep, in turn, cause Soo-jin to lose plenty of her own. Meanwhile, Hyun-su faces an ordeal of his own: the allegedly “acclaimed” actor, who’s revealed to mostly fill supporting roles in soaps, checks into rehab and has to adjust to new restrictions on his nocturnal movements. Our can-do lovebirds eventually find their dynamic subtly reversed: Hyun-su retreats, over time, into a state of unbothered serenity while Soo-jin, especially with the baby’s safety to worry about, dives headfirst into her own sleepless madness.

What’s so refreshing about Sleep, then, is its uncanny yet sensitive exploration of the microcosm that is married life, as viewed through the lens of the titular activity — which happy couples do, both in and after the heat of passion, while unhappy ones shirk all but the most literal meaning. Sleep is a biological process as much as a social one, and Yu speaks to the anxieties inherent in the black box of consciousness when he invokes, through spooky possession, the even spookier dispossession of human agency. Like the best horror films, Yu’s ascribes something unnatural to biological naturalism and, in doing so, actively questions our hubristic faith in the latter. With a keen eye for set design, Yu also exploits his couple’s apartment’s space to elucidate both flourishing romance and weary claustrophobia, sometimes concurrently; for a first feature that culminates in a frenetic and almost ridiculous third act, Sleep balances its emotional and narrative motivations exceedingly well

Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 2.