Most people have heard of sleepwalking – or maybe are sleepwalkers themselves. Sleepwalking can be quite worrying and occasionally horrifying if the individual who is sleepwalking has a tendency to walk out the door into the night, get behind the wheel of a vehicle, or harm the person sleeping next to them.
Fascinated by how sleepwalkers (and the people around them) live their lives, Korean director Jason Yu decided to explore the topic with his film debut titled “Sleep”.
The film opens with the sound of Hyeon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun of “Parasite”) snoring long and loud. However, he suddenly sits bolt upright and utters two words no one, especially his heavily pregnant wife, would want to hear in the dead of night: “Someone’s inside”.
Terrified, his wife Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi of “Train to Busan”), still musters the courage to get out of bed to check if there’s an intruder inside. Except for a couple of rather well executed jump scares, it’s clear that there is no one inside her home.
But don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet – Hyeon-soo’s sleepwalking pattern takes a turn for the worse and an accidental death during one of his episodes teases of more horrors that will unfold.
And it does when a shaman who’s called in for help, claims Soo-jin is living with two men, one alive and the other dead. The tables soon turn as Soo-jin gets increasingly more manic, determined to protect her family and her newborn daughter.
The bulk of the film is set in the couple’s cramped apartment, so it’s basically a two-person cast, save for a few supporting characters.
There are many reasons why the film works, and female lead Jung is definitely one of them. Her character starts off chirpy and positive, like many other Korean drama protagonists, and her wholehearted support for her husband’s acting career is rather touching.
However, midway through the film, the audience witnesses how Soo-jin’s suffocating paranoia and her extreme reactions – from loving wife to frenzied mother – take over as she tries to protect her newborn girl from an unseen but terrifying force within her home.
Jung handles the role with great finesse and believability as does Lee, who plays the tortured husband. As the triggers behind his sleeping disorder are revealed gradually, Lee communicates his character’s exasperation and disbelief well, and it’s easy to emphasise with him.
Yu’s handling of the film’s “horror” element is commendable. As Soo-jin succumbs to the horror around her, even the energy in their apartment visibly mutates – from warm and comforting at the start of the film to dark, cold and claustrophobic.
Yu makes the transition smooth, carefully building up the creepiness to the climatic end, where everything goes off the rails.
One particularly memorable scene is Hyeon-soo shoving raw meat and eggs into his mouth during a sleepwalking episode. No jarring sound effects here, only a heavy silence that makes the scene doubly terrifying and disgusting. Kudos to Yu for that.
As tense as some scenes get, there are also comedic moments such as when the couple’s neighbour is introduced – a scene that ends with a nosebleed.
As supporting cast go, the shaman is an obnoxious but interesting and memorable character to look out for. Dressed a tad glamorously for a medium and with the confidence of a stern headmistress, she commands the scene the moment she shows up, ringing her bells as she walks through the apartment in her quest to identify the problem.
Overall, “Sleep” is a worthy debut film from Yu that blends dark comedy and horror in a fresh way. Its compact 95-minute runtime also makes for a wild but fun experience that will make you think twice the next time your head hits the pillow.
As of press time, ‘Sleep’ is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide.