Fantastic Fest 2023: Night Terrors Lead to a Domestic Disintegration in SLEEP

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Jason Yu’s debut feature explores a terror and torment that comes during our most vulnerable time

Our time for rest is also the time at which we are at our most vulnerable. A sound slumber masking a possible approach of a threat. Sleep, the debut feature from writer/director Jason Yu, explores this concept with the added conceit that this threat that emerges at night, might come in an unexpected form. What if a partner lying next to you at night, suddenly became untrustworthy, and worse, a potential a danger to you.

The nightmare begins when the pregnant  Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) is awoken in the middle of the night. Sitting at the end of the bed is her husband Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun, Parasite). Unresponsive to her, she hears him muttering  “Something’s inside,” before falling backwards into a blissful slumber. A bang follows, and unable to rouse her husband, Soo-jin goes to investigate their apartment and finds an open window blowing in the wind, as well as their startled Pomeranian Pepper. She also spies debris on the floor from what she comes to find was a sleepwalking adventure to the fridge by her husband, in search of a snack. The next night, Hyun-su unknowingly scratches his cheek until he draws blood, not a good look for an aspiring actor. The nights continue, with Soo-jin becoming increasingly unsettled at her husband’s actions, which come to a head when Hyun-su nearly sleepwalks out of the window of their fourth floor apartment. Admitting they need help, they consult a doctor and Hyun-su is diagnosed with an REM sleep disorder. Prescribed a medication, and a series of lifestyle changes, he tries to treat the condition, but to no avail, the situation doesn’t just persist, but gets worse. After the baby arrives, Soo-jin’s fears grow, and they are compounded by a horrifying incident one night. Desperate for a solution, she even begins to entertain the meddling of her mother and her mystic beliefs. They allow her to bring a shaman into her home to perform a cleansing ritual, during which they pinpoint the problem. An apparition, obsessed with Soo-jin has attached itself to Hyun-su and an exorcism is needed, one that requires identification of who this spirit is. Hyun-su remains skeptical, but Soo-jin begins to wonder, what if someone really is inside?

It’s a great premise, expertly leveraged for building unease within the home of this cute couple. Clearly in love, they they adorn their wall with a handmade sign of their motto “Together we can overcome anything”. Saccharine in sentiment, but endearingly executed. There is a playfulness between the pair that reinforces authenticity as much as the superb performances both leads turn in. Even the “baby-proofing” of the apartment is played for delightful comedy, giving the film the veneer of a playful sit-com at times. Their humor, and affection, is a ballast within the film to temper the growing tension of the situation. Even as things get more intense, it still peeks through in moments as they try to rally, and support each other in trying times.

While Hyun-su is the one with the condition, it becomes quickly apparent that it is Hyun-su that is suffering. A growing psychosis that results from her disturbed (and disturbing) sleep that fuels an obsessive, paranoid quality, as well as this domestic disintegration. After practical solutions fail, the shaman’s advice is to identify the spirit by name to allow it to be vanquished, which adds something of an investigative element to the film. What works in Sleep‘s favor is that it doesn’t show it’s hand until late on. Is this really a haunting, or does it stem from deeper anxiety. “Something’s inside” might certainly be referring to the baby, or internalized fears over becoming a father. That’s enough to disturb anyone’s regular sleep patterns. The domino effect of depriving a partner of sleep only exacerbates the situation. All is revealed in the final act, which is where the film does some focus. A leap in narrative, egregiously skipping an event that feels pretty integral to the arcs of these characters, is an odd choice. Similarly is a turn where previously unknown rules are introduced that setup the film’s resolution. The resolution isn’t necessarily at odds with what the film is originally setting out to do, but the execution certainly muddles things.

The film is superbly constructed, with visuals and sound design helping craft the perfect little pressure cooker of escalating dread within this apartment. The drama is superbly built, and through each night ramps things up with new, perturbing elements, while deftly balancing the tonal shifts and ongoing family drama. Despite the third act stumble, Sleep is an engaging and effective debut feature from Yu, showcasing skilled and playful film-making. The story engenders empathy and engagement for this couple on the cusp of parenthood, as they try to stay true to each other in the face of these night terrors. This complements a really great hook that is leveraged to maximum effect, by turning the safety and comfort of our own bedroom, and those we share it with, into something to be feared.

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