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Sleep ★★★



Released: 12 July 2024

Director: Jason Yu

Starring: Jung Yu-Mi, Lee Sun-Kyun

Review By: Blake Simons

Things that go bump in the night in horror cinema tend to be unknowns. The fear, the suspense, the growing unease in these films stem from the mystery of the cause or source. But what if the thing going bump is very much known to you, what then? The question then becomes: why?

Jason Yu’s twisty debut feature Sleep takes this idea in simultaneously real and unreal directions, to devilishly charming and ultimately repellent ends.

A gradually unravelling relational chiller, Sleep’s central couple are disarmingly believable, Jung Yu-mi and Lee Sun-Kyun lending them a warm chemistry and charm. This is sadly the late Lee’s final film role, and his presence here is hearteningly gripping – the kind of performance that makes you sit up straight and focus your senses.

Which is exactly how Sleep opens. Hyeon-Soo (Lee Sun-kyun) sits bolt upright at the foot of their marital bed, Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) woken by his movements. He speaks. “Something’s inside”. At first the couple assume this utterance is in relation to the house, then merely a line reading from the TV show Hyeon-Soo is currently appearing in. But then Hyeon-Soo begins to exhibit strange behaviours when the lights go out for sleep, behaviours most unlike himself. Determined to return to a normal and peaceful bedtime the couple meet their newfound challenges head-on…

Sleep is probably not the film you’re expecting it to be. Examining relationship challenges, breakdown, and resolve through the device of potentially supernatural chronic illness is an ingenious twist on the home invasion concept. Yu has a killer slow-burn hook here, exploring it with admirable nuance and empathy for much of the film’s runtime.

South Korea is of course no stranger to warped domestic dramas, and with the international success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite it’s no wonder that Curzon have picked this up for UK distribution and slapped Bong’s ringing endorsement of the film on the marketing.

To view Sleep through the lens of Bong’s impact on canon does its own box of tricks a disservice, but the narrative unfolds with a familiar tightening grip, albeit with the addition of gonzo stylistic flourishes that recall recent Park Chan-Wook works. Whilst it feels lazy to compare a new director to two of the biggest Korean filmmakers of the present moment, they’re unavoidable reference points here. The sound design is also impeccable, accented by delightfully unsettling and playful violin stabs.

Unfortunately, it’s not all the stuff of dreams. The film does a refreshingly fantastic job at empathising and aligning with a female spousal and maternal perspective, so it’s beyond disappointing to see it reduce and betray that empathy and character depth in its later developments. Sleep is ultimately an unpleasant film, and to an extent that malice and discomfort is refreshing. However, when the third act of a film can be boiled down to the colloquialism ‘bitches be crazy?’, we’ve got a problem, and the addition of a question mark does nothing to absolve Yu’s film from repellent misogyny.

Sleep had me initially but lost me around an hour in. Perhaps I should buy an eye mask.

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