Wes Craven understood, when conceiving A Nightmare on Elm Street, the creepiness of our sacred sleep time being invaded, and Adam McKay was similarly onto something when realizing how good a sleepwalking gag could be in Step Brothers. So Sleep, a new festival-minted genre picture from Jason Yu, a former underling of Bong Joon-ho, in its own blend of horror and comedy, should be able to deliver on the promise of both. Yet if accomplished in pulling off the kind of tonal shifts and formal precision you’d expect from someone who trained under that Oscar-winning genre superstar, there’s a bit of a lack of a true pulse to the proceedings––even as the terrain of pregnancy and threats to newborn children is something that will never fail to get people going (similarly a power-drill to the head near the end of the film is probably a recurring horror image for a reason).
Broken up into chapters, the film revolves around an upwardly mobile South Korean couple Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) and Hyeon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun). Their steady domestic situation is upended when the former begins a habit of sleepwalking, which initially seems fine when it’s just him shoveling food down his gullet but comes to be a subject of deep concern with the appearance of blood under the bed and the mysterious death of a neighbor.
With the glow of the fancy fridge a unifying image of the disruption that seeps into their middle-class lifestyle, the film links the two further, touching on how under, shudder, NEOLIBERALISM every aspect of life has become micro-managed. Hyeon-soo takes to a number of changing prescriptions, puffy cocoon-like sleeping bags and dietary suggestions to potentially solve the problem of his sleep condition, skilled montage conveying this taking over their lifestyle.
Yet it’s all a little too pronounced, as if never quite saying anything too surprising about modern living––instead there’s a slightly self-satisfied feeling, as if as a critic I’m just supposed to applaud it for acknowledging these conditions rather than turning them into truly effective images on their own. To the film’s credit, though, there is an underlying tension and mystery throughout. A ghost? Demonic possession? He’s just a psychopath? Once pregnancy––and furthermore the couple’s baby––comes into the equation, as I said: it’ll be hard not to squirm at least a little bit.
What initially seems intriguing about Sleep is how it has the promise of a Bluebeard or rather classic gothic story of a woman in fear of what her husband is capable of. Yet adapting to the modern age where gender roles aren’t as strict as they used to be: her the executive breadwinner, him the award-winning yet highly insecure actor. To add another question: is the threat he potentially poses about reasserting the dominance he thinks he should have?
Perhaps more a battle of the sexes (as explicitly represented in the film’s climax) all along, it sadly feels too little too late for the ideas to truly blossom. Yes, admirably “bonkers” by the end, but one wishes the rest of the film could cut a little deeper.
Sleep premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.