(Written by Allison Brown)
What happens to our mind and body when we sleep is a superstitious enigma many have questioned throughout time, so much so that Billie Eilish recently used the concept as an album title. Writer/Director Jason Yu tackles this fear of the unknown, along with gender disparity in relationships, credibility of supernatural thought, and mental health in disturbing horror Sleep. For a film that originally premiered at Cannes, it thankfully lacks any sign of pretention, and is one my favorite TIFF selections I watched yet this year.
When Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun) unexpectedly wakes up in a cold sweat stating, “someone’s inside,” his pregnant wife, Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi), gets up to inspect the home for an intruder. Happy to only discover Pepper, their charming Pomeranian, nestled behind laundry accoutrements and an accidentally ajar door, the couple believes they can move on scott-free. Boy are they wrong! A sign hangs over the threshold with the idiom: “together we can overcome anything.” Hyun-su surely could not anticipate what she would be in for when purchasing this decoration.
Yu is incredible at building suspense, leaving one transfixed to the screen. With tension in the air, Hyun-su descends into real life horror: REM Sleep Behavior Disorder. He strangely begins consuming raw meat from the fridge, scratching himself deep enough to draw blood, and soon appears to be homicidal. After Hyun-su commits a grave offense while unconscious, Soo-jin begins to lose faith in her husband, as medication and preventative measures are utterly ineffective. It only gets worse once she gives birth. That she sticks by him wholly through the appalling behavior and fear for her child’s life is attributed to the ridiculous length women will go to put up with a spouse they love. This almost reads as an allegory for an abusive relationship with an alcoholic. Despite a worry for safety, women make excuses for their partner’s behavior, as they certainly didn’t mean it while under the influence.
When the script is flipped, and Soo-jin descends into madness from lack of sleep, Hyun-su is completely unsupportive, lacking sympathy from the get-go. He belittles her theory that he may be possessed, laughs at her, and will not take anything she has to say seriously. This is a great display of sexism in our society, and a double standard applied to physical versus mental illness. The deeper cultural analysis beneath well executed surface level terror is what makes Sleep especially sharp.
For those already afraid of the potential to sleepwalk, in the aftermath of Sleep, you will never rest again once it screens at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, September 15.