(The always fantastic Fantastic Fest runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas. Check out Bears Rebecca Fonté’s movie review of The Toxic Avenger which premiered at the fest. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page. )
Despite it being one of the basic building blocks of life, sleep is something we know fairly little about in comparison to the rest of our biological functions. It is a place where creativity sparks, problems are solved, feelings are worked through, and the body replenishes for the next day. Did you know people who consistently sleep six hours a night live significantly shorter lifespans than people who sleep eight hours a night? Our lack of understanding of this thing that we spend hopefully close to 1/3 of our day inside is probably why it has become such a important setting for horror films. The land of dreams is the land where anything can happen as anyone who’s ever walked down Elm Street knows. But sleep is also where we are at our most Susceptible.
Korean horror flick Sleep, making its US premiere at Fantastic Fest, starts simply enough. A wife awakens to find her husband sitting upright at the edge of the bed who says in a hushed tone someone is in the house. Thankfully this is not a home invasion film. Instead, it is a bewildering, tension-filled contained thriller which finds a life’s desperate to understand why all of a sudden her husband has taken to sleep-walking, sleep-eating delectable items such as raw eggs still in their shell, and sleep-almost-jumping-off-the-balcony. The situation becomes even more dangerous when they have their first child. What might a new father do to his helpless newborn asleep in a crib?
Director Jason Yu makes good use of the limited locations and takes advantage of the fact that harmless sites by day can appear ominous when the lights go out. There’s also a deftness of pace that belies the first feature director (he did work as an assistant director to Parasite‘s Bong Joon-ho). The two leads — Train to Busan’s Jung Yu-mi and Parasite‘s Lee Sun-kyun — really capture the impossibility of the situation. Here you’ve given your whole life over to someone, and they may be the most dangerous person you could let near your child.
One of the things that works so well in the film is that no matter how difficult this situation gets, they refuse to give up on each other or their love. The very real obvious answer is to just get a divorce but instead they are in this together for better or for worse just like the vows say. In addition to keeping us in the same location, it also invests us in something more than most horror films. It’s not enough for them to survive, we want their marriage to survive. The plaque that hangs on the wall declares “together we can overcome anything” as some sort of dare.
After playing Cannes and TIFF, Sleep carries with it expectations of the elevated material from the directors former boss, but by stripping the conflict down to the simplest, non-effects laden version ghost story, Yu brings his own voice to the front. At times the film is more like a black comedy than a horror film, it seems to say that nothing is as scary as entrusting your life to this other person. As David Foster Wallace wrote “every love story is a ghost story” (the title of his biography), a phrase he attributed to Virginia Woolf but that he actually made-up. Our understanding of our partner is often a poor substitute for reality, one which we craft to make up for the fact that you could never truly know another person. A film like Sleep frightens simply because even when it’s wrapped up we still can’t shake the fear that it brought forth.
– Bears Rebecca Fonté (@BearsFonte)
Fantastic Fest; Jason Yu; Sleep movie review