Jason Yu doesn’t waste any time when it comes to his riotous feature directorial debut, “Sleep.” Picture it: We’re in a cozy apartment in the middle of the night, and someone (in this case, “Parasite” actor Lee Sun-kyun) is gently snoring away in bed beside his pregnant wife (Jung Yu-mi). Suddenly, there’s a bang, or a shuffle, or a yelp, enough to pull Soo-jin (Jung) out of her slumber and out into the apartment. It’s scary — dark apartment, nighttime, weird noise, all bad — but set against the backdrop of Lee’s happy snoozing, it’s also quite amusing.
And then Hyun-su (Lee) sits up, still asleep, and utters the two words no one would want to hear in such a situation, let alone his high-strung wife: “Someone’s inside.” Instantly, it’s terrifying. But as Yu manically — and that’s not to say messily, not at all — seesaws between the funny and the scary, “Sleep” starts to take on its highly entertaining shape. Even freaked totally out of her mind, Soo-jin goes looking (for what? for who?) in the far reaches of their apartment, only to discover — via the rarest of horror tropes, an actually well-earned jump scare — there’s nothing to fear.
Or is there?
Told in three increasingly wild chapters, Soo-jin soon learns from a chatty new neighbor — who she, funnily enough, first meets after slamming her in the face with her front door, a zippy little comedic beat that somehow works in this milieu — that there’s been all kinds of stuff going bump in the night for days, the kind that is disturbing the new family who have moved in below Hyun-su and Soo-jin. For days? Soon enough, Hyun-su’s sleep patterns get more erratic (and bloody), the noises become louder, and the peace of the close couple’s nighttime routine is shattered.
While Yu, who also wrote the film’s script, piles on a few obvious elements — don’t get too attached to the couple’s cute dog; don’t overlook the mystical beliefs Soo-jin’s mom touts — much of what he’s put on the page translates cleverly to the screen. Upon close expectation, Yu is weaving a tight, taut thriller that knows the value of both jumping in fright and tittering in delight. Mostly set in the film’s apartment, which undergoes its own changes over the course of the feature, “Sleep” is a close, claustrophobic gem, instantly immersive and constantly evolving.
And as Hyun-su — a lovely man, a devoted husband, and a thrilled father-to-be, at least when he’s awake — further divides between his nighttime and daytime selves, it’s Jung who steadily becomes the film’s main event. Soo-jin has some rigid ideas about the power of partnership — an ethos of stick-to-it and stick-together-ness that she’s literally got carved and burnt into a piece of wood hanging on the couple’s wall — and it’s what drives her to see this thing out (whatever it may be) despite increasingly worrisome signs.
Hyun-su gets medication, gets a mummy sleeping bag, gets literally locked in the couple’s bedroom for the night, and somehow, it’s Soo-jin who starts to look like the crazy one. Even the most blunt bits — like the inherent jitteriness of placing an expectant mother and then a very cute baby in possible danger — work very well through Yu’s imagination and Jung’s interpretation. Watching Soo-jin crack is, just like “Sleep” itself, incredibly funny and deeply scary. It’s Jung who keeps that tonal tightrope working as she navigates between all sorts of seemingly disparate emotions, finding insightful middle ground within all of them.
Things go, somewhat predictably, off the rails in the film’s third chapter, but Yu and his stars have such fun pulling together all the various pieces — the noises, the neighbors, the mystical possibilities, and the plain old terror of being an adult in such a weird world — that it’s difficult not to continue to enjoy this ride. “Sleep” is fun enough the first time out, but a second watch will likely reveal even more natty twists and smart scripting, nothing to snooze at here.
“Sleep” had its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Magnet Releasing will release it at a later date.