In “Sleep,” debutant filmmaker Jason Yu creates an atmosphere of terror lying beneath a modern married relationship. The film engages the audience right from the beginning. It opens with a slow fade, alongside the sound of snoring slowly reverberating through the auditorium. It might make you look over your shoulder to see if one of the audience members might have fallen asleep. The best part of genre films is that the soundscape determines whether it’s a horror or a comedy. The film’s opening is in line with the title, yet we are intrigued about what we are in for.
Jason Yu worked as an assistant director in Bong Joon-ho’s 2017 film “Okja.” The apprentice doesn’t disappoint, and the master is full of praise after he is said to have forced Yu to cast Lee Sun-kyun for the role of the husband. Yu’s imagery has many similarities to his mentor’s work. The casting of Jung Yu-mi was also undoubtedly a coup. “Sleep” revolves around the concept of a husband’s nightmarish sleepwalking and how it affects his pregnant wife, who gets scared.
Soo-jin is a caring wife who will do anything to cure her husband of the disease. As the narrative progresses, her mental state deteriorates to such an extent that she fears for her child’s life. The fear is not unfounded. If your husband can eat your dog in the middle of the night while sleepwalking, you’d be definitely scared. Yes! A dog gets eaten in the movie! The animal lovers will be undoubtedly horrified by just this. Yu doesn’t care much for the snowflakes and carries the viciousness forward.
Subsequently, the elements of supernatural and occult take over. This might’ve been deliberate to make the character of Soo-jin, a modern woman with her faith firmly rooted in science, falter to depths where she embraces the occult with open arms. For the development of the narrative, this felt like an oversimplification. Yu’s shortcut does not work as Soo’s mother is convinced that her husband, Hyeon, is possessed by another spirit. The tendency to integrate the deus-ex-machina felt like Yu had cheated his audience out of a genuinely terrifying experience. The occult is a fascinating aspect to incorporate into a horror film, but the horror of being with someone who cannot be cured and is a direct threat to you and your newborn is terrifying in itself.
As Yu had mentioned when he started writing “Sleep,” he wanted to write something genre-specific. When he was about to get married, he started thinking about what it would be like to stay with someone with a condition like this. This modern-day interpretation of married relationships is subtle yet thought-provoking. We are pushed towards finding someone with whom we can share our lives with. But would you be willing to deal with the problems that marriage brings? Soo tries her best. The board on top of the wall with a motivational quote that says whatever the problems are, they will deal with it together is an absolute gem of a plot device.
Soo researches the problem and finds solution after solution. When Hyeon scratches his face fiercely, she puts mitts in his hand to stop it from happening. When he eats the dog, Soo locks the door and locks him inside. Eventually, when he tries to jump out of the window, she replaces the open windows with grills, thereby converting her home into a jail cell. These intricacies are literal and metaphorical as well. The image of the perfect marriage is replaced by that of a figurative and literal prison for Soo.
The occult, though, is utilized by Yu to create the perfect ending. Soo is pushed to the brink of madness, and when she leaves the psychiatry ward, she turns her home into a house of horrors. Hyeon doesn’t even realize when he became a part of a ritual as he is sleeping. The hilarious presentation that Soo creates to explain to her husband what exactly is ailing him, even though he has gone to the sleep clinic and cured himself, is a very memorable scene. Even though it is a disease, Hyeon becomes the tyrant, driving his wife to madness.
This is a brilliant portrayal of how men are sometimes oblivious to what ails their partners. Even though Hyeon knows and does everything to cure himself of the disease, he still cannot fathom the extent to which he has pushed Soo. “Sleep” also depicts the plight of working-class individuals and the immense pressures they are under. Sleep deformities are a silent killer, and people are constantly prioritizing work over sleep. This film addresses it through a nightmarish account, and as a side note for all the dog lovers out there, sleep! Or else.