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“In some ways, it’s a commentary on my naivety” – Jason Yu Talks Sleep

5 min read

Curzon Film

previously worked as Bong Joon-ho's assistant on Okja, but with , he steps out of the shadows of a cinematic giant to present a film that's deeply personal and universally terrifying. By using the medium of film as a canvas for his hopes and anxieties, Yu has crafted a modern horror story that examines past traditions in the context of contemporary life's shifting values. Prior to its release in UK cinemas, FILMHOUNDS had the pleasure of unpacking a rich debut with Yu himself.

I'd like to start with a quote from Bong Joon-ho, who said that Sleep was the “most unique horror film and the smartest debut film I've seen in 10 years.” 

It's funny because he was the first person to read the screenplay, and he was also one of the first people to see a rough cut of the film. When we discussed it he never said such things, it was only later that I had to read it for myself. I was quite shocked by what he thought about the film, but I'm honoured and grateful that he said it. Bong Joon-ho is sort of my cinematic hero. Just watching my film in itself would have been enough, but giving such high praise really made my whole year. I'm still living off that high I think.

The core concept is something that's really frightening on a primitive level — the idea that sleep can be a gateway to evil, and the effect that has on a young couple's relationship. I wondered how much of it came from a personal space?

A lot of it did. There are a lot of little seeds that inspired me to write it, but specifically, I have some bad sleep habits — a severe case of sleep apnea. In my experience, people with these sleep disorders don't really know that they're going through them, but their loved ones do and it terrifies them. My wife would wake up in the night to find me not breathing and it would terrify her to no end. I thought that was terrible, obviously, but also quite interesting. Even a harmless sleep disorder of me not breathing well created such tension and fear, and I guess a natural progression as a storyteller was to consider what would happen if it was harmful and if that person was to become a threat.

There's a definite sense of pride within the couple — they're adamant to stick together no matter what. For example, reiterating that they're “not a dysfunctional family.” I'm interested to know whether that's another example of something personal to you being reframed as a horror story, or if that's something you're trying to say about modern life in a wider sense?

You know how they say a film is a reflection of the filmmaker? Society is a reflection of the individual and the individual in this instance is the filmmaker. How I thought about marriage at that time, and how I thought about “couple culture” in modern society definitely seeped in. While writing the screenplay I was at the cusp of marrying my long-time girlfriend and I was afraid. I was afraid of how fallible that institution of marriage seemed, and I suppose I wanted to have a more romantic vision of it.

The thing about marriage in modern society, and I think it's not necessarily a bad thing, but the institution is losing its regard in modern life. In the past, the belief was that no matter what you go through as a married couple you stick together and you try to make it work. In the modern society, I think individual happiness is much more important. That's a good thing, but for me at the time, who was at the cusp of marriage, I wanted to believe in how strong marriage could be. In some ways, it's a commentary on my naivety.

I do feel that the real protagonist of Sleep is the marriage itself. The obstacles are things that try to break the marriage apart rather than either character individually. The way they try to survive them is the hopelessly romantic view I had on what marriage could provide.

There are a lot of traditional ideals clashing with modern ideas — in the FILMHOUNDS review, Becci spoke about the classic gothic horror story that looks at a female protagonist terrified by the capabilities of her husband, and how Sleep modernises it with non-traditional gender roles among other things.

Yeah, the protagonists are a younger couple but they have this “old view” of what a marriage should be. But the mother, who's an older character, she has a more modern view of marriage and how to obtain self-happiness and how easy it is to break this traditional institution when you find it's no longer meeting your needs. I think in the younger couple you almost see what happens when tradition goes too far, and when you have too rigid an approach to life because of it.

Modern medicine as opposed to consulting a shaman is another example. It was almost like a Korean version of the dilemma in The Exorcist — where do you go when medicine doesn't do anything?

I'm not sure if it's only specific to Korea, but I'd say it happens all across Asia. We're very reliant on medicine, unlike the West where it seems like you barely see anyone going to the hospital for anything. In Korea, if you have a small scratch or a light cold, you would rush to the hospital. That being said, if I was a betting man I'd say at least one or two out of every ten Korean people will have visited a shaman just to try and better their lives, or to shoo away bad energy.

On paper, I suppose you wonder why these two things would exist in one line of thought, but somehow it does and somehow it doesn't feel weird in Korea. I just imagined that this is what the couple would try — try to see if it was a medical problem, but there's always the last resort of hiring a shaman. Maybe I just wanted to have my cake and eat it too, but the two co-exist in quite a harmonious way for me.

Sleep is exclusively in cinemas 12th July.