“Sleep” (“Jam”)

(South Korea)

Screened at the 11th Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival (4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), Imdb.com (8/10)

It’s always gratifying when a horror film truly lives up to its billing (especially given how many awful releases there are in this genre), but that’s because this debut feature from writer-director Jason Yu qualifies in the more ambitious “smart horror” branch of this category. The filmmaker’s first outing tells an entertaining, suspenseful and often quite humorous tale that serves up its share of good frights (without becoming gratuitous) while simultaneously and metaphorically giving audiences something to think about on a seemingly unrelated topic – the challenges of marriage. That’s quite a lot to tackle in one picture, but the director handles it capably through a well-constructed, tightly packaged narrative that seamlessly and effectively integrates gasps with laughs, often doing so without becoming silly, obvious or predictable. This offering follows a young couple (Jung Yu-mi, Lee Sun-kyun) whose lives get turned upside down when mysterious nighttime, sleep disorder-related occurrences begin happening in their apartment, events that threaten the well-being of their marriage and prompt them to go to great lengths to resolve these issues, frequently at great cost to the health and future of their relationship. The intensity builds steadily, but the director skillfully injects measured changes in direction and well-placed humor to deflate the shocks as a means to not playing his hand too soon. The result is a captivating watch that holds viewer interest through its economically orchestrated 1:35:00 runtime. It’s indeed rare that I heartily recommend horror flicks, but I’ll gladly do it for this one, both for its entertainment value and the insightful advice it offers to all the married couples out there. Hang in there, folks – as this film shows, things always have the potential to get better, no matter how dire they may look and how much resilience must be put into working them out, even if there are a few scares – and laughs – along the way.