Sleep (Jam)

Sleep (Jam) (2003)

Sleep (Jam) had its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival

Sleep (Jam) opens with snoring – a sound that signifies deep domestic dormancy, while also threatening to disrupt it. Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) awakens to find her husband Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun, in what would be his final film) not lying beside her in bed, but sitting faced away from her on the edge of the mattress as he, still fast asleep, utters the words, “Someone’s inside.”

Real estate executive Soo-jin and award-winning actor Hyun-su are happily married and very much in love, sharing the apartment with their Pomeranian Pepper, and already building a cradle for their first child who is due to join them very soon – but this nocturnal incident marks the insidious intrusion of something unsettling and negative into the newlyweds’ otherwise breezily contented relationship. Once awake, Hyun-su tries to shrug his ominous words off as part of a line from a script that he has been rehearsing – but once he has given them voice, it is too late, and a sense of home invasion takes root. Soon Hyun-su’s sleep-talking and sleep-walking escalate to acts of nocturnal self-mutilation and even the harming of others, so that at night, entirely unawares, this considerate, soft-spoken husband becomes like a man possessed. 

After running some brain tests, a specialist doctor (Yoon Kyung-ho) diagnoses REM sleep behaviour disorder – and sure enough the pamphlet on the condition which he gives them matches Hyun-su’s symptoms so closely that it is like a storyboard for the film thus far. It is now just a case of Hyun-su making a few lifestyle adjustments, and waiting for the prescribed medication to start working. Yet there is no time to wait – for Soo-jin has just given birth, and on top of all the usual stress and broken sleep that parenthood brings, and complaints about noise from the new downstairs neighbour (Kim Gook Hee), she is also filled with dread that Hyun-su will unwittingly hurt their beloved newborn daughter Ha-yoon in his sleep – something which, in the nightmares that fill her own sporadic slumbers, he is already doing.

So on her mother’s advice, she turns to a shaman for help. Much as earlier Soo-jin had devoted all her spare time to researching medical cures online for her husband’s uncanny ailment, now she goes down a rabbit-hole of spiritualism in search of a supernatural solution, while simultaneously trying to identify who close to her may have died and taken up malicious ghostly residence in her husband. While Hyun-su may continue to behave oddly at night, Soo-jin increasingly is on edge at all hours, losing herself to overwhelming anxieties that are starting to make her seem the greater danger to this family that she insists is not dysfunctional.

Writer/director Jason Yu’s feature debut is a domestic horror showing how just a tiny seed of doubt can, under the proper conditions of pressure, make a happy family come apart at the seams. Sleep puts in bed together two very different frames of interpretation – one rational, the other not – for what is happening with this couple and, without ever resolving its own ambiguities, lets both of the newlyweds act out their scripted rôles in a psychodrama that is beyond their control, and that might be their undoing. Any way you read it, this is a tragedy of two people trying desperately to stick by each other while their marriage is strained and tested by impossible circumstances – and as the apartment’s interiors are transformed from cosy marital nest into a space of Polanski-style paranoia, the greatest threat to this couple may indeed, one way or another, be coming from inside.

strap: Jason Yu’s psychodramatic feature debut brings ambiguous Polanskian dread to a new family in a nightmarish apartment

© Anton Bitel