Review: Sleepless Night at EIFF

Liam Nolan, a member of the inaugural Student Critics Jury, reviews Sleepless Night

Sleepless Night is the second feature film from director Jang Kun-jae. It tells the story of a young South Korean couple (played by Kim Soo-hyun and Kim Joo-ryoung) as they assess the practicalities of marriage and the responsibilities of parenthood.

With studies of relationships, we tend to expect heightened dramatic tension, questions of fidelity or explosive arguments over the dinner table. Kun-jae avoids these clichés by focusing on frivolous moments. They talk about whether they should have a baby or if they’re being exploited at work. These conversations may sound slight but go a long way toward painting a vivid portrait of a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding. By the films conclusion, we care about what lies ahead of this couple. What’s interesting here is that their love is never questioned. They seem to exist in a harmonious bubble with a healthy flow of communication. Many conversations take place over a meal and the simple act of sharing dinner is treated with a sense of adoration. It’s during these moments that the weightiest debates take place. The conflict never arises from their feelings for each other but instead from external forces. Her mother agitates her by reminding her of the lasting chances to have children. His recently divorced friend warns him of the potential pitfalls of marriage. But when they’re alone, their affections for each other are certain. These traits endear them to us greatly.

Kun-jae tells his story in a simple, formal manner. The camera is rigid and acts as a fly-on-the-wall. It’s not exactly a documentary aesthetic but cinematographer Kim Byung-soo shoots the film in a low-key style that rarely draws attention to itself. The same point can be made about the acting. A film of this type lives or dies on it’s performances but Soo-hyun and Joo-ryoung are both entirely convincing. Their portrayals are subtly tender. Kun-jae’s film is smart enough to realize that less is more. Simple compliments on each others cooking replace melodramatic declarations of love. The long takes give the actors plenty of room to breathe and assert their own nuances. One sequence with the couple cleaning after a dinner party sees a misinterpreted statement develop into an argument. The fine acting here is accentuated by infrequent cutting and maximizes the growing tension by having it all take place in one shot.

Despite this, Sleepless Night is not a film about stand out sequences or quotable dialogue. The episodic structure gives it a mosaic quality where intimate moments broaden it into a wider scope. Questions of parental worth and financial security give the couple cause for concern throughout but the final scene, in which the couple watch the sky for falling stars binds the mundane with a poetic romanticism and brings events to an optimistic close.

Liam Nolan

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